Form and formality in martial arts techniques

Cross referring the internal arts and goju has helped me discern not only a possible historical and technical relationship, but more importantly it has helped me understand the function of "formal" training, such as kata. I think that seeing how someone else does the same thing can give you a great deal of insight into what it is you are doing and why.

Ultimately we all want to effect a natural, "no-nonsense" technique. However it seems to me that many “modern” stylists have thrown the baby out with the bathwater by abandoning the "formal" aspects of traditional martial arts, not realising that these have a training purpose (not unlike the speedball might have a particular training purpose for a boxer, even though no boxer ever "hits someone like that").

I have found the Chen Pan Ling taijiquan movements generally correspond the most with minimalist, natural way of moving. Bagua and xingyi tend to have progressively greater elements of "formality" in the movement. I think the formality is not there for its own sake, but to focus attention on certain aspects that are vital in producing an effective technique (eg. tension in a particular muscle, lack of tension in another).

In my opinion karate techniques are, yet again, even more “formal” than the internal arts of xingyi, bagua and taiji. This formality can be seen not only in the basics (which many argue cannot be applied in sparring — more on this contentious subject later) but also in the tempo and “phrasing” of kata performance. For example, sometimes a kata employs dynamic tension at a particular point in a movement to prepare the body for encountering resistance.

In this regard it is interesting to note that both Chen Pan Ling and Hong Yi Xiang of Taiwan taught their arts in the following order: an external Shaolin art (comparable to karate), xingyiquan, baguazhang, then taijiquan. The justification for this methodology is that you start with less "natural" movements, but spend necessary time training in basic skills, muscle development etc. When you have become sufficiently senior you "abandon form" so that you are moving naturally - almost like a beginner, but this time with purpose and efficacy.

Copyright © 2008 Dejan Djurdjevic


  1. The best and most effective order to train in things is often something people never even think about. But it is a necessary component of producing real ability in students.

    However, many instructors use the order of teaching from a curriculum someone else gave them. This has certain issues when looked at in a generational sense. The issue of dilution is one thing. The issue of misconception is another. But the issue of not owning your own art or style, is the end byproduct one way or another. Teaching something that isn't really yours but just a copy of another, only creates copies of imperfect copies.

    It is not even that people can't reverse the trend, but because they don't think about it, the possibility for reversing it is zero too. Intent precedes action. No intent, no action. Too much belief in "automatic reflexes" misleads people into thinking they can do a lot of their art on auto pilot. If people want something truly automatic, they should get an auto repeating rifle, a grenade, and a claymore mine.


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