Deconstructing form: the bridge between "learning" and "applying"

In just over a week's time three of my students will be departing for Taiwan to train directly with my teacher, Chen Yun Ching. Two of them will become third generation bai shi. I am deeply honoured to have my students recognised in this manner and proud of all three of them. I know that they are going to have an amazing, if not life-altering, experience. I am saddened that I won't be able to be there with them to see it happen, but life does not always deal us the cards we would like to have and I am grateful for those that I have previously been dealt!

So in the last few trainings I have been placed in a bit of a quandary: how can I best prepare my students for their trip? After all, I know only too well what sort of thing they can expect. They can expect to be thrust into an intensive learning environment, with new forms, techniques and concepts being thrown at them like grapeshot from a cannon. In order to absorb as much useful material as they can, and hence get the most out of the experience, they need to be prepared. They need to know as much as I could teach them in the preceding months. But they also need to be able to learn fast - as fast as they have ever learned. If anything, this is the most important part.

The first part is something that is easily addressed in a pedagogic sense – and to a large extent, we have: in the previous three months we have covered as much of the material as time has allowed, including taijiquan, baguazhang and xingyiquan. We have gone through the feng quan "bridging" forms (containing elements of all three internal arts) and we have studied the Chung Yang sword form. We have trained in push (or "listening") hands and we have looked at applications of all the techniques.

But with two or three lessons to go before the trip, how is their time with me best spent? What is it that will most be of use to them? Should we go through the feng quan forms one more time? Should we go through the xingyi 5 elements where I refine their technique yet further? Is memorisation, repetition and physical correction what they need right now?

This sort of training may have served them well in the lead up to their departure, but it only serves to refine what they already know. How can I help them prepare for material they have yet to learn?

Well, I know for starters that the material they will be learning in Taiwan will almost certainly build upon their base of existing knowledge. To absorb the new material, and get the most out of it, they need to know their base inside out. They will need understand the concepts inherent in that base, both intellectually and (most importantly) subconsciously/intuitively. They will need to be so familiar with the essential concepts that they can recognise them whenever and wherever they arise in the new material, albeit in a modified way. In short, they need to know their base well enough to see it in an adapted form, and adapt it themselves, without a moment's thought.

This means that they need to own the material – it needs to be part of them. There can be no disconnect between the forms/techniques and the students. They, as individuals, need to be adaptable.

Achieving this sort of "ownership" of techniques or "adaptability" doesn't just mean that they should be able to do their existing forms accurately and correctly. Having an exact "pao quan" from xingyi just testifies to one's ability to mimic form, parrot-style, not necessarily to any "deeper", more intuitive, knowledge. No: there must be something more. Whether their form is entirely "correct" or not, the concepts inherent in that form must arise subconsciously and reflexively in their movement. They must occur spontaneously.

So, faced with this dilemma, last Saturday I decided not to go down the usual route of, say, examining their xingyi 5 elements in detail, requiring endless repetitions with stops for correction.

I decided not to go through applications exhaustively. I have always thought that "showing" an application, and even practising it, does not bring a martial artist much closer to "owning" the material. After all, I could show you a million and one applications of formal movements. You could practise them endlessly in a series of "standing start" drills. But would this help you bring them out as spontaneous reactions (what I've called "situational reflexes") – particularly against an aggressive, resistant attacker? Not really, in my experience.

There needs to be a bridge between "form" and "function"; a bridge between learning and applying; between practice and reflex reaction; between something that you've been shown and something that you will naturally do. The bridge is this: an intuitive or subconscious understanding.

But how can you get that?

I've previously discussed how a traditional martial artist learns form for the sake of absorbing concepts; how once these concepts are absorbed into your subconscious and become part of your "situational reflexes", they can (and should) be abandoned. They will have served their purpose.

This is why I adhere to what I've previously called a "sequential relativism" in traditional martial arts study: you learn new forms based on principles you've learned in more basic ones. As you go further and further in your study, you slowly change the material on which you're focusing. As useful as it is to go over foundational material occasionally (if not regularly), if your study is confined merely to basics you're guaranteed to get diminishing returns. Necessarily, you need to avert your attention to new material – material that challenges you, that inspires you that provokes the reaction "I can't do this! Why the heck not?!" It is only when you reach that point that you know you are learning at a maximum rate.

Yes, one could study a grade 10 physics textbook for one's entire lifetime, trying to ensure that one will get 100% in any test arising from that material. But this is hardly a productive use of time. You might only be able to score 60% in a test on the material – but it will be time to move on to something that is more advanced. You'll see that grade 10 material again anyway; the higher stuff assumes you know it. As much as you should pause to master something – to get the "magic from the small things" – there should also be an impetus driving you forward.

So, faced with my student's current performances of their existing forms, how would the remaining three lessons be best spent? Probably to their great surprise, I didn't require them to drill their forms on Saturday. Instead I got them to experiment; to start "deconstructing" parts of the forms that they knew and put them back together again.


A video in which I discuss the "deconstruction" of certain techniques from the internal arts

The video above is taken from that lesson. In it, I took two related taiji movements known as "part wild horse's mane" and "fair lady works at shuttles" and combined them into a short sequence. Initially I got the students to practise this sequence repetitively along one line. But as they became more familiar with it, I encouraged them to morph it into a more "free form" activity – to "play" with it by changing the angles, and even the stepping pattern so as to turn/pivot into infinite angles and directions.

I might pause at this point to note that the short sequence I'd created might, at first glance, appear relatively easy. For a seasoned taiji student it should be basic – after all the movements are taken directly from the taiji form, with one preceding the other in the "long form" sequence.

Even with the 2 beginners I had in the class, it might be viewed as 2 distinct and simple movements. How hard can it be? The truth is this: it is very hard. It is "advanced". If you doubt me, I invite you to try the taiji variant at the start (from 0:16 onwards). Why is it hard? Because it requires you to understand the very principles at the heart of the two movements. You need to have them ingrained as part of your psyche before you can execute them fluidly along the same line – never mind with variations in angle/direction etc. (see from 3:45 onwards).

After the taiji "drill" I got the students to examine a bagua alternative (see 0:43 and 4:22), then a xingyi one (see 0:43 and 4:34), to see how the other internal arts handled the same situation in different ways using subtly different concepts and principles (see 2:30).

Then finally I got the students to combine the 3 different drills, executing each one randomly in free-form "play" (see 4:55 onwards).

"Ah," you might say, "but how is this different from learning forms? Isn't this is just another form that you've taught yourself?" No, it is isn't. In fact, I routinely perform such sequences in my own training, whether formal or "informal" (what I call "kitchen training" which I will soon address). I try to perform such sequences spontaneously – without any planning at all – with an emphasis on maintaining a flow and pulling in techniques from all three internal arts (as well as the external arts that I study).

In this particular case, during my lesson planning I randomly chose two movements from taiji (ie. "part wild horse's mane" and "fair lady works at shuttles") and I combined them. I did this in about 2 minutes the night before. I did the same for the bagua and xingyi variants. They were hardly rehearsed; I spent all of maybe 10 minutes planning the lesson. When I performed them in class they were almost entirely "new" to me. In fact, I hadn't even considered a more "free-form play" until just before the class. I was learning too!

So what was the net result? What do I think the students gained from this practice? I hope they acquired some adaptability. I hope they started to understand the deeper concepts inherent in these movements; the way they connect; the way they can morph or "blend" into different techniques. We could have done this with practically any movements, but these worked well enough. In fact, I had a "back-up" plan involving a sequence using the taiji technique called "single whip" but we never got to that. In the end, it doesn't matter what "formal sequences" you choose: after a while you start to see the same concepts and threads emerging; you start to see the common patterns underlying human movement.

Eventually you start to understand the relationships between movements – and later this "understanding" becomes intuitive. Only when this happens do you know that you're on the road to "owning" the material; that the form is finally fulfilling its function; that you've started moving from "learning" to "applying" in a truly reflexive, spontaneous way. It is only then that you should expect to see the movements arising against a resistant partner. Up till then, you'll almost certainly be using the same tired movements that comprise your default – or worse, some form of "faux boxing"!

So had one of the students approached me after the class (and I know they wouldn't have even considered it!) to ask: "Why didn't we spend more time on X or Y in preparation for Taiwan?" I would have answered as follows:
    "I can teach you what little I know. But I can't teach you what I don't know. And the most challenging part of your trip will be the unknown. Your best way of preparing for the unknown is adaptability. And that is what we were trying to develop today."
I wish my students a safe journey, an enriching, fulfilling experience and I wait (enviously, but proudly) for their return so that perhaps they can teach me some of what they have learned!

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic