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Training forms

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In all traditional martial arts we have the idea of predefined choreographed movements that often symbolize some kind of shadow boxing. Except for a few sword styles and some rarer styles, forms are a solo practice which aims at refining one’s technique and getting a better understanding of the moves that characterize one’s art.

Forms are practiced with bare hands or with a weapon and are meant to help mastering technique, movement, breath and to change the way of moving. The concept is very interesting: to practice exactly the moves that we will use in life can be very useful to enhance neuromuscular patterns. But in reality forms have little utility. They are important for competition and for demonstrations, not really for combat or for energy work.

I will not dwell on the details of the competition or demonstrations since it is not the point here. Also, as energy work requires great concentration, it is recommended to use simpler movements than those that can be found in the forms. From the perspective of fighting, the idea of working on striking combinations is interesting to loosen joints and train the muscles. However, it is a counter-productive practice if one tries to apply the same combinations in real fights.

The idea of fighting is close to the idea of chaos, nothing is planned and nothing is determined.
If we force ourself to make predefined moves we quickly go against our instinct, which remains the best value in combat. Yet there are several obvious interests to practicing forms daily. First, it is important to relax using complex forms that will also work on body coordination.

Repeating a form regularly helps to improve body positioning in space. Furthermore, if the forms are long and dynamic they enable the practitioner to develop global fitness. But these good points can be found in gymnastics. If the latter offers the same possibilities as the fighting arts, why do we bother to practice them?

You should know that 95% of the forms that we know today are 200 year-old or so, which corresponds to a period where martial arts came out of secrecy to become a business. They no longer show the essence of an art but are rather suitable for demonstration. In addition they represent a way of fighting and fighting concepts that are completely out of date.

To name just three: some jump kicks used against riders, complex moves to expose the neck of an opponent wearing an armor or disarming techniques against a warrior with a spear.

Forms of deep interest are made of very simple and repetitive movements. Why do a form and not directly repeat these moves, would you say? If you look at the progress made by the athletes have done on 100 meters sprint, we see that an Olympian of the beginning of the 20th century and one from last year do not have the same performances. The reason is that today we have a much better understanding of physical training and methods than before. The best way to train the body will be to respect an order in the way we train: we start with the body, then we try to coordinate breathing with movement, it is only then that we will go to the meditative techniques that are intended to calm negative emotions and increase the intent. Here is the beginning of energy work.

Let’s see first how to structure the body.

The latter consists of several segments and logic dictates that we train each of them separately from the others and then we unifies the whole body in every move. To follow the logic of the taoist arts but also to avoid turning our practice into memory gymnastics , these physical moves will also be used for meditation, Qi Gong, and martial arts.

First we take the muscle groups attached to the most static and tense joints of the body (shoulders and hips seem to be part of them). Then we will go through each muscle group and each joint to end on the finer parts such as fingers or toes. Each series of exercises will be repeated each day over a period of two to three months (we may however extend this period in case of unsatisfying results).

We will then have further exercises, tailored to the most important segments, always practiced for a specified period. The practice will then be enriched by different complementary exercises with tools like objects, rubber bands or weights. The emphasis is on quality training rather than quantity. For this, exercises should be performed slowly to be perceived and analyzed completely.

Members must be sought in torsion / rotation to get the “sponge” effect. They must be controlled at all times for neuromuscular patterns to be built precisely into the sensory memory of the body and of course, to be acquired, the exercises must be repeated every day for a given period. The slow exercises found in all Chinese internal arts and yoga is useful for the practitioner to bring total movement control. Performing the exercises too quickly prevents us from revealing imperfections that would appear if the move was performed slowly.

We want the correct moves perfectly aligned with the joints and respecting the body lines of force. It is only when this moves will be fully integrated in slowness and then speed, that we can have a move that is not fuelled by conscious concentration. At this stage we can consider switching to more important things like moving energy, regulating the breath, or working on emotions. Moreover, in the difficult conditions of a physical confrontation (I’m talking about martial arts) or a period of serious illness (to which chi kung is related), the mind is troubled.

When the mind can’t focus perfectly, without interference, then we should rely on the body that can not be disturbed. It’s the principle of habit: it takes months to successfully make a move or a route without thinking about it. However, it is very difficult to change this move or this path once the habit is ingrained in the body. This is the difference between an intellectual or mental rehearsal and a habit engraved in the body cells.

Muscle torsion/rotation is found in all yoga exercises and stretching: the idea is to empty the blood from a specific area by “drilling” and twisting movements (this is the principle of the sponge emptied of its water) and then let the blood fill the muscle again when the pressure is released. The repetition of these moves will help to increase the blood supply to the targeted area. In traditional Chinese texts it is said that where there is blood there is energy and wherever there is energy there is blood. Thus increasing blood circulation is synonymous with an increased energy circulation.

Unlike the forms we have spoken about above, we can already see that this is not gymnastics anymore, but rather Qi Gong. The combination of all these sensations, these breaths, of moving the energy and regulating the emotions allows a style of Qi Gong similar in all respects (externally) to the fighting arts moves. The latters are simple and precise moves which seek little of our memory since every body motions and moves are fluid and logical. It is obvious that the moves for fighting will be engraved in the body as will the Qi Gong moves.

Thus a very advanced Qi Gong move may seem simple on the outside, and a little move can develop great martial power at impact. Furthermore, the more we go further in the taoist arts, the more we realize that all external moves take the same directions in three dimensions.

Every gesture is evolving in space in one of the six directions.

Whether we practice “white crane spreads its wings” in Tai Chi,  “horse shape” in Xing Yi, “sixth palm change” in Pa Kua, this remains in all cases an 45° uppercut and nothing more. If instead of wasting our time doing all these forms without really knowing why, we worked directly the related direction (upward diagonal), it would be easier to get to the point. If we developed training methods in order to make this motion in these different dimensions more precise and involving the whole body, it would save time.

This time saved could then use it for things more important than physical movement. It could be used for the mental, emotional and energetic. This would reduce the number of moves performed while increasing their quality and our understanding of them. With the habit of working with the concepts, the three dimensions and six directions, there will be no limit to the number of techniques that we can explain or use without wasting time practicing forms without interest that we can’t apply in the fighting or health arts.

These trainings allow to work on the whole body and to improve each time using the same actions whatever inner work we do. Each body part will be stronger and the whole body itself will be healthier. Each natural move will be an effective technique for the fighting and health arts. Nevermore will we wonder: “if he does the white crane eating the leaves crane, should I do the flying tamarind or rather choose the deadly turnstile?“.