Sine wave vs. the core purpose of forms

Derailing the core purpose of forms – let me count the ways...

In my previous article I discussed the core purpose of forms; how in order to be effective training tools, forms must place techniques in a dynamic context. And that dynamic context must be both relevant and useful.

Understanding these components, and having these concepts at the back of your mind while you train, is essential for making traditional forms work for you. After all, a form is nigh on worthless if you simply flap your way through it without a care or a single bead of sweat. The best designed form in the world won't help you one iota if you butcher it with a poor performance.

And poor performance is just one issue. Yes, many students have, and many will continue, to be lazy in their kata practice. That is human nature. But others will err not through caring too little but by caring too much.

What do I mean?

Some students will conscientiously perform kata in a way that robs the dynamic context of its both relevance and usefulness, which in turn strips the kata of its core purpose. They will do so through diligent (but misguided) modification. It doesn't take much. Let's take just one (I think obvious) example: the ITF "sine wave".

Can a relevant and useful dynamic context survive the "sine wave" theory?

One point of professional disagreement my friend Sanko and I have is with the infamous "sine wave" theory as it now appears in modern taekwondo. I have previously outlined why the "sine wave" cannot apply to melee range fighting. But to understand my own objections to this theory in the context of kata we need to look specifically at a taekwondo form: in this case let's consider "Chon ji".

Chon ji – the first of the taekwondo patterns

By anyone's reckoning, Chon ji is a very basic form. It is clearly based on stepping of the shotokan karate school (in particular, the stepping found in the heian series of kata – kata which are themselves quite basic forms).

The steps in Chon ji are all full, "natural" steps (ie. where the back leg passes the front). As I discussed in my article "Why bother with natural stepping?" there are good reasons (particularly for beginners) to practice such steps, in particular being able to move as quickly and with as little telegraphing as possible. I won't bore you by repeating the details but I encourage you to read the article if you haven't already.

In my previous article I gave some additional reasons for stepping in stances: such steps add load by:
  • requiring a full step within a timeframe where one might expect to use a mere lunge; and
  • requiring a stance that is much deeper than what one might see in a real fight.

So what is wrong with the above performance of Chon ji? Why am I suggesting that the "sine wave" element is "derailing" the relevance and usefulness of the dynamic context provided by this form? After all, these are strong allegations indeed! Some might say that I'd better have some fairly solid arguments to back up these assertions. Well, I think I have. You see, it all comes down to something I've already discussed in some detail, namely the problem of dead time in natural stepping – and how one deals with that problem.

The natural step: your best friend or your worst enemy

You'll have seen from my previous articles that "dead" time is a real issue, not an imaginary one. In fact, it's a killer. Lyoto Machida shows just how he exploits his opponents' "dead time" in a number of examples I've detailed in my article: "How the internal arts work: Part 1". While that article is about the internal arts, I raise the example of Lyoto Machida to illustrate that the problem of "dead time" is common to all fighters. It just so happens that the internal arts have pedagogic devices specifically geared at addressing "dead time" where many systems are only obliquely aware of it. But whether one is aware of it or not, the issue is there.

As I've discussed, "dead time" occurs with every "natural step": every time one leg passes another you have a period during which you are not exerting any force on your opponent – during which you are a "sitting duck" both offensively and defensively.

Decreasing "dead time": a chance to make the best of natural stepping

Accordingly, as a martial artist you have two choices in relation to your own "dead time": you can either try to eliminate "natural stepping" from your fight plan, or use such stepping to your advantage. The latter is basically karate's (and hence Lyoto Machida's) approach. I discuss this whole issue at some length in my article "Why bother with stepping in stances". (Indeed, that article would have been better titled "Why bother with natural stepping in stances" but I thought the latter would have been a bit too long!)

But it goes without saying that if you choose the latter course, you must also take the opportunity (afforded by so many, many natural steps in basics and kata etc.) of minimising "dead time" in those natural steps. It would be sheer folly to do otherwise. For one thing, it would squander a valuable forum for correction and refinement of movement. For another, doing thousands of repetitions of suboptimal movement will inculcate that something that is, by definition, suboptimal.

Where "dead time" occurs

To understand how one can minimise "dead time" one needs to understand first where that "dead time" occurs in the course of a natural step. It should come as no surprise to hear that the "dead time" lasts until exactly half way through the step. It starts when your back heel lifts off the ground and ends when your back foot draws parallel to your front.

And it should also come as no surprise to find that this is end point is precisely the point at which the body reaches its maximum height during the normal human walking gait. In the course of ordinary walking the body does indeed go through a kind of "sine wave" motion, with the body going up as your feet draw parallel, then down again as you extend out to step forward.

Making a bad situation much, much worse

Every time a taekwondo practitioner consciously "rises" as his or her feet draw parallel, the practitioner is accentuating what is a "natural" tendency. Indeed, this is the argument for doing it in the first place. It is more "natural" and is therefore more "relaxed". But this logic misses the point on several fronts.

That we shouldn't be doing "natural steps" (ie. a full step with one leg passing the other) in the course of fighting is something I have already covered extensively and I won't repeat it here. The more important factor is to note the following:
    How we move "naturally" isn't necessarily optimal for fighting.
If what we did in our normal day-to-day living were sufficient preparation for fighting, we wouldn't need to train. We certainly wouldn't need forms. But that is very far from the truth. More often than not, learning martial arts involves unlearning what we do on a day-to-day basis. This is the case for practically every other specialist movement, be it for dance, sports or other physical activity. Movement to which you naturally gravitate is often the polar opposite of what you need to learn for more targeted activities. Just as the "natural" doggy paddle isn't the most efficient swimming stroke, stepping with a "rise" and "fall" isn't the most efficient way of moving for fighting. In fact, it is the reverse.

And here's the main reason why:
    By accentuating the "natural" rise as you approach the mid-step, you are deliberately increasing your "dead time".
There is simply no way around this. You're making what is already a bad situation, much, much worse. 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)!

While internal arts practitioners are investing a great deal of time scientifically and methodically eliminating (or at least minimising) "dead time" in movement, proponents of sine wave are doing the exact opposite.

"We choose to go to the moon!"

But what of the idea that one should do "sine wave" movements so as to learn how to move in a "relaxed" manner? Isn't there some merit to this? Indeed. Moving in the most relaxed manner possible is one of the cornerstones of the internal arts – particularly taijiquan. Just take a look at Master Ren Guangyi performing Chen taiji in the video below and tell me it isn't "relaxed":

Ren Guangyi performing Chen taijiquan: note the relaxed movement, but also note that there is nothing "everyday" about it!

What should be immediately apparent to you is that the movement is often most relaxed when Master Ren is in a very low stance, transferring weight from one foot to another. For example, note his movement from 0:40 to 0:42. In terms of "relaxed" movement, this is the very opposite of "sine wave". Where sine wave is "natural" (in the sense of "everyday") Master Ren's equisite "relaxed" movement is anything but. It is actually very hard to do – even for a master. To get this "relaxed" Master Ren has spent years upon years training in low stances. He no doubt endured years of feeling "stiff" and "tight" before he acquired this level of self control.

Importantly, you can be sure of this: at no point did Master Ren think "I'll just raise my body as I step – that will make it more 'natural' and therefore more 'relaxed'." Why? Because it would not have made him more "relaxed". It would just have made the activity easier. And making something "easier" is no recipe for success. To quote science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein:
In other words: "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." In this world, you never get something for nothing. If you want to know how to move in a relaxed way, you don't take the easy road. To paraphrase President Kennedy (from around the same era!):
    We choose to step without rising! We choose to step without rising... and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard!

So while "relaxed movement" is offered as support for the "sine wave", this contradicts the very reason for having deep stances in the first place - namely to add load.


If you practice kata steps with sine wave (especially to the extent shown in Chong ji form performance above), what have you accomplished? Well, you might well have introduced some relevant movement (eg. a downward motion helping accelerate your punch) - I'll grant that (even if the degree of benefit from such "force accelerators" is questionable).

But I believe you have simultaneously lost the only good reason for doing "natural" (ie. one-foot-passes-the-other) steps in the first place – and that is to increase load. In other words you've lost any usefulness of including in kata footwork that is otherwise inherently unsuited to fighting. If you want to practise punches with such a downward moment, you might as well do them as simple basics - "one-off" punches timed with a dropping motion, but without the inherently impractical (for fighting, anyway) "natural" steps.

And if you have a rise and fall between a block/deflection and its related counter, the context will lose any relevance it otherwise had; you will divorce the related constituents (eg. the block from its counter) into distinct "parcels" so that they no longer occur in a truly "dynamic context" (ie. a context where related techniques have the necessary continuity or temporal connection). Yet this is precisely what is happening with each block/deflection and subsequent counter in the performance of Chon ji.

I've used sine wave as an example here, but the same sorts of criticisms lie against other modern "innovations" such as the "double hip". Instead of using having a sequence of related moves embedded in a dynamic environment, you are left with a disjointed series of unrelated basics. You might as well sit down between each technique – they have absolutely no nexus other than that one follows the other sequentially.

Forms are so much more than a series of unrelated basics. They are a way of understanding the process of change; how techniques manifest in a state of motion. They are, in Sanko's terms, poetry. And just as poems don't comprise a mere series of unrelated words (however "powerful" those individual words are), forms don't just comprise a series of unrelated basic techniques (however powerful these are). In a poem, the magic lies in how words relate to each other - and the meaning (usefulness) the sentences that they create have for you. Forms are no different.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic