Discussing the importance of form

After reading a comment by Jon Law (of Epic Martial Arts Blog) in one of my previous posts, I had a look through some of the recent posts on his blog and noticed that form was being discussed, particularly with reference to the “form police”, who if I’m understanding it correctly (and Jon, correct me if I’ve messed this up!) are the group who, commenting from a traditional martial arts perspective, take pride in their high degree of anal retentivity when it comes to correct form in the dojo/training hall/etc.

Personally, I think that I tend to sit more within the “form police” than the other side of the argument. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the extreme effectiveness that modern styles with less emphasis on form than the traditionalists, like MMA, or styles like Muay Thai, Keysi or even Krav Maga bring to the table of martial arts in contemporary society – I’ve seen some of these at work (though not in person – only in video form), and the sheer power that these accomplish is nothing to be snuffed at.

Rather, I find the importance placed on form in traditional martial arts, especially if you have a good instructor who will also question the rational behind form in an effort to continue with their lifelong learning of martial arts, is a key point about them, and that there is a great deal of benefit to it. I’ve found the the emphasis on form is essential to learning the delicate art of control in your chosen form of martial art. Standing in funny stances with plenty of minute correction is one of the cornerstones of my road to understanding the inherent functions of my body, especially with regards to my physical disability. A lot of what I discussed in an earlier post, I believe, can be attributed to my constant drive to better my form, and the emphasis on form in class.

Being interested in Japanese society, culture and history is another reason I enjoy learning karate, and the emphasis on anal retentivity when it comes to form is something I therefore appreciate as a piece of cultural inheritance. The fusion between the Ryukyu attitude to martial arts and “traditional” Japanese budo, especially in a revisionist sense since the “birth” of the contemporary shotokan model occurred post-Meiji where the interpretation of traditional values were being adapted to meet the needs of Japanese modernisation, comes through in the way karate is taught. What some see as frustrating, I see as a reflection of this foreign culture I continue to hold an interest in, so there’s another reason why I’m a proponent of form.

Control, in and of itself, is also an important benefit derived from good form. Control in the sense of controlling the level of contact or impact (important in a self defense situation if you happen to get hauled into court I imagine, as well as sparring in class), and control in terms of accuracy. In the recent seminar I attended, I was amazed at how easily and accurately specific points on the body were demonstrated in order to maximise the effectiveness of the technique. This ensured that not only was the strength and power behind the blow sufficiently powerful, but that the total accuracy of the attack to specific nerve clusters would add even greater potency to the technique. Granted, it takes a very large amount of time and skill to get to this degree of proficiency, but it’s an important point nonetheless.

But to counter this, there should also be an understanding of the difference between form in class, and the application of your technique in a “real-world” scenario. If someone comes at you with the intent to harm you, there’s little point dropping into zenkutsu-dachi; I imagine it would be far better to shorten your stance and work from there.

Which brings the question, in the context of this example – why emphasise low stances (i.e. form) to such a degree if its not useful in a combat situation? While I don’t have all the answers, my gut feeling is that the principles remain the same – draw your power from the ground and maintain stability, and the extra conditioning you endure whilst doing proper low stances ensures a great level of application of the same techniques when in a shorter, more practical stance. Therefore, attention to form has been instrumental in enhancing your real-world combative technique.

Even in saying all of this, how I would use techniques in a self-defense scenario reveals a bit of a dichotomy – if I kicked with my real leg, there’s little point in MT-style round kicks as I lack the hip motion, so I would use front and side snap kicks or thrust kicks learned through attention to proper form. If I kicked with my prosthesis I loose muscular accuracy and control, which means my most effective technique would be to emphasise more or a MT-style kick where I sacrifice control/form for raw power.

But still, if it weren’t for the emphasis on perfecting my form from early on (and continuing to do so), I wouldn’t have the level of mastery I currently have over my body. And whose to say I still don’t have so much more to learn now that I’m on this path? I’m in this for the long run, so we’ll see where I end up.

With all this being said, I’d like to emphasise that none of this intended to disrespect any other martial art, or to call any other style “wrong” or “inferior” – I believe that we can all learn from our many varied experiences, and how one person learns a martial art may well be fundamentally different to another. Just take myself for example – how many other martial artists are out there are training with one leg; have a fascination with Japanese society, culture and history; enjoy the slow process of burning away the imperfection to remain with a perfectly formed core; and nerd it up on the internet with a blog? So, for me personally, I cannot over-emphasise that working towards perfect form is an inherent rationale behind my training. At the same time, I respect those who criticise the overly judicious proponents of the argument that form is everything because it does not fit with your attitude or approach to martial arts or self-defense.

Of course, to temper these two views is the extent to which form should be emphasised, which I’ve addressed in part. I realise that form is still a part of any fighting system (otherwise its likely that it wouldn’t be a “system”), but traditional martial arts tend to place a greater emphasis (or anal retentivity) on form versus practical application of a technique. It’s an at-times delicate balance, and while I’ll tend to slide more towards greater form, I still respect those who go the other direction, because their reasons behind their training are very likely to be different from mine. And you know what? That’s fine by me.

Wow, this was only meant to be a short blog, but I’ve rambled on for much longer than I expected!!! I can only hope I don’t change my mind on the whole form thing in a few years – anyone who wants to have a dig at my change in opinion will have a brilliant little example to ridicule me with if so by bringing up this post 🙂 See, there’s another thing – there weren’t anywhere near enough smiley faces in this blog also, so here’s another one 😛 Thanks again to Jon for writing some excellent posts on the topic and inadvertently encouraging me to write this post! Hopefully my jumbled rambling makes some sense to someone else apart from me!!!


3 Responses to “Discussing the importance of form”

  1. Hi Sean,

    Thanks for taking the time to read my waffle and being so reasonable in your post whilst not agreeing with me. You’re a gent. Oh and thanks for the trackback 🙂

    You make some decent points here, and with regard to

    “Standing in funny stances with plenty of minute correction is one of the cornerstones of my road to understanding the inherent functions of my body, especially with regards to my physical disability”

    I can see where you are coming from and learning body awareness, for want of a better expression, has clearly helped you immensely, and has been essential in your progression not only in martial arts but everyday life.

    However, there had to be a however, right ;), i have two main gripes with anal quibling over form. Firstly, it directs attention away from the actual goal of a technique which is to deliver a powerful strike, or in the case of a stance, to provide an optimal base to strike from, there’s more of course but that will suffice for here.

    You end up with a sub optimal strike, IMO. Now I don’t dispense with form completely, obviously correct form IS required to produce a decent strike, but it doesn’t have to be picture perfect and often isn’t pretty.

    Control is related to correct form as you say, but this too CAN result in a sub-optimal outcome. Weak strikes can result as the ‘muscle memory’ (hateful term IMO) replicates what it learns. I can feel a post coming on……..

    My second major gripe, again very much related to form and control, concerns balance. For the majority of people in TMA they remain on balance too much, delivering power involves losing your balance in order to transfer force into the target. In fact, losing balance is essential for dynamic movement; walking involves losing and regaining balance, running also but to a greater degree. In a manner of speaking striking does to, to varying degrees. Of course we need dynamic balance, but reliance on good form leads to static balance.

    I hope that makes sense, I will definitely write a post on this subject, but it won’t be just yet I have no time. Thanks again for reading my waffle, mate, I’m very pleased you think it worthwhile writing such an eloquent response.

  2. Hi Jon,

    Wow, thanks for such a detailed reply, and I think as my long-winded post demonstrated, I’m not exactly one to shy away from waffling either!

    I absolutely respect your position on this, and believe you make some excellent points – any kind of learning benefits from different ideas and discussion/debate, and I really appreciate you taking the time out to respond with a great deal of thought. My instructor is a big proponent of discussion and sharing ideas with regards to different styles of martial arts, including the precept of cross-training to try and determine the best way that you can be as a martial artist.

    Just last week he brought up that in traditional Japanese systems (we’re talking pre-Meiji restoration), depending on the dojo some instructors would send their students to different schools/instructors to learn the skills that other accomplished martial artists could pass on as part of the student’s training. In the seminar I recently attended, there was also discussion on bias with regards to different traditional systems in karate, and how techniques in one style may have been better suited for people of differing body types owing to the body type of the style’s founder. I think the key points with this discussion is that there can be a real benefit in sharing different ideas and concepts in the grand scheme of things.

    I think it’s great to have an open mind with regards to training, and when you get the chance to post something on your blog in response to what I’ve written, throw me a trackback and I’ll post my thoughts in response!

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March 2009