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