Thursday, October 7, 2010

Creating Your Form

     I imagine that the heading of this lecture has already confused a number of you. Those of you who have trained with me know how I feel about the homemade forms that are presented at various competitions in the hopes of winning shiny trophies or fat checks. And that’s not what this lecture is about. Not at all. It’s about creating form, which is the only real form there is.

     For several decades now, I’ve listened to many martial arts enthusiasts grump and whine about how traditional forms are unrealistic and do little else than mass-produce human robots. For this reason, many karate and kung-fu adherents toss away the forms they originally learned from their teachers and strive to invent their own flashier, “more realistic” versions. Others simply chuck the whole idea of learning and practicing forms out the window altogether and focus on “reality” fighting. In both cases, what we are seeing is simply an outward expression of ignorance.

      Okay, let’s back up this whole idea and start at the beginning. Any given form is learned in stages. In the first stage, you strive to memorize the movements. This isn’t necessarily as easy as it would seem; after all, some forms are more than a little complicated and they have to be learned slowly, step-by-step, until they can be performed without having to stop and think about which movement comes next.
     Many students, and even a good number of martial arts instructors that I’ve met, never pass beyond this stage. They figure that once they’ve memorized the form, that’s it. It’s more of a floor exercise routine than it is a book that contains valuable information. They’re not interested in reading it; they just like to look at the pictures, as it were.

      Those who have a deeper desire to learn real martial arts will move on to the second stage. At this stage the practitioner strives to understand and then master the physical mechanics of the form. This involves not only the study of each individual technique that is presented in the set, but also breathing and rhythms. These people have a deeper respect for the art they practice and their efforts will foster a deeper understand of the form and their art as a whole.
     Unfortunately, most martial arts enthusiasts never progress beyond this stage. They get stuck in the mire of being a “copy”; of the actual physical mechanics of the form.

     However, once you have memorized the movements of the form and you have acquired skill in the mechanical aspects of it, you need to create it.


     A form is not an entity that you can hold in your hand or measure or weigh. It has no life of its own like your dog or cat or even the tree in your front yard. In short, it does not exist apart from the individual who performs it at any given time. When that happens – when someone performs a particular set – it exists only for him or her and no one else.  That is, the person executing the form gives it life and spirit…or not, depending upon his or her understanding and feeling of the form, and his or her level of creativity.

     Each time you perform a given form, you create it!

     Or not. Maybe yours is a lifeless, mechanical robot. It is void of feeling and spirit. It is nothing more than a machine; a series of mechanical movements strung together in a certain sequence. And that’s it.  That’s what I call a “shell.” It has an outside but no heart. No guts. No feeling.

     And this is why you’ll never be able to do your form exactly as your instructor does it. You are not him. Your physical structure – your body – is different from his. And your mind – what you feel, how you feel it, how you express yourself – is different from his. And if he’s a well-trained teacher who has a deep understanding and appreciation of his art, he’ll encourage you to be yourself and express your own creativity through your form.

     This doesn’t mean that you’ll start changing the movements, body shifting, footwork, or rhythm of your form. It means that you’ll literally breathe life into it. Remember, it exists only when you perform it and its life-span is very short. When you end it, the form ceases to exist. It is gone forever. Sure, you can do it again…but it’s not the same form. Each time you do it, you re-create. And each re-creation is different, unique unto itself because you yourself change with each passing moment.

     What kind of form will appear when you perform it this time? How will it feel? What is its spirit? If it could be colored, what color would it be? Will it be geeky…rather bland and colorless? Or will it be like stone…hard and heavy? Will it be fiery or will it be like water that moves around objects and takes on the form of its container? Some forms are meant to be practiced so that they are hard or fiery or like water or even wind…and that’s how you should strive to do them. But you breathe your own unique character into them each time you practice them.

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