Taolu translates to exercise sets or what we refer to as forms. Kata is the common Japanese term. Forms were used over hundreds of years to pass on martial lineage from generation to generation. The predetermined sequences would contain applications and would also serve to train and develop the practitioner through coordination, strength, balance, speed, footwork, precision, flexibility and stamina. Forms have been a major part of traditional training; however, modern influences have diminished their appreciation with both valid and not so valid criticisms. Firstly, many consider them predominantly aesthetic and non practical. This is due I think, to a growing focus on the acrobatic elements popular in extreme martial arts and other performance areas such as demonstrations, film and competitions. Another aspect is the concept of hidden techniques in the forms. Where techniques are not known, solutions can be made up and not necessarily be valid. Worse is the creation of contrived techniques which can lead to false confidence. Jim Carrey – Karate Instructor
Traditional forms should teach real, practical techniques, through the repetition of biomechanical movements called “muscle memory” or motor skill retention. Another point worth noting is that although a move may be practiced in the form with (for example – extreme depth of stance or maximum extension), it is likely to be for the benefits of leg strengthening or stretching a part of the body, and the actual technique can be applied without that necessarily.
Which brings me to the point of this blog. It is unfortunate that the many benefits of forms are often overlooked due to the student’s focus on simply reciting the prescribed movements and perhaps wanting to move on to the next form sooner rather than later. Traditionally, a kung fu form would be an entire system of study within itself and a lifetime would be spent perfecting it. Hence why they have family names attached to them. So I am going to list a variety of approaches/focuses that can be applied to your forms training and point out the various benefits that can be gained from each.
Walking through – perhaps the most common way, but only good for marking through and checking that you have all the moves, know the right directions etc., in essence, making sure you remember it all. Something to be aware of though, students sometime walk through just to get a feeling of completion, and so they can ‘tick the box’, however nothing has specifically been worked upon.
Fast speed – with the exception of qi techniques & internal forms, most forms are ultimately performed at full speed, as exemplified by the shaolin monks. Training faster and faster allows you to practice trying to maintain all the execution elements as we increase the difficulty with speed. Inevitably, some elements of precision won’t be as good under fast speed, which gives us the opportunity to see what is ingrained and maintained under pressure and what drops out.
“A powerful athlete is not a strong athlete, but one who can exert his strength quickly. Since power equals force times speed, if the athlete learns to make faster movements he increases his power, even though the contractile pulling strength of his muscles remains unchanged. Thus, a smaller man who can swing faster may hit as hard or as far as the heavier man who swings slowly.” Bruce Lee
Slow speed – forms executed at slow speed allow for a great awareness of precision and details. Attention can be given to full breathing (out on the delivery of strikes, in during the transitions). Done in the manner of a Tai Ji form, builds stamina, works balance, and allows for detailed biomechanical analysis.
Restricted space – this is a very beneficial exercise, but probably only for the more advanced practitioner. Starting your form facing a wall, or in a corner of a room forces you to adapt your movements in a confined manner which simulates effectively the need to adjust your techniques against a real life assailant who is moving and changing the timing and distance between you.
Eyes closed – performing your forms with eyes closed enables you to tap into your kinaesthetic senses, allowing you to tweak areas where synchronicity, balance, co-ordination need work.
Reverse – performing a form in reverse (backwards) makes you get out of comfort zone, forcing you to apply techniques in unusual combinations. Your brain will certainly be working harder with this exercise!
Mirror image – doing the form reverse sided makes you more ambidextrous. Practicing a technique on your non-dominant side can often allow you to break down a move you might be struggling with. Your non-dominant side can sometimes learn a difficult move more easily as it has less muscle memory than the dominant side. It is often akin to learning a move from scratch.
Segmented – rather than trying to complete the entire form or working on the whole form at once, there is merit to breaking the form down into smaller size segments, allowing you to work on more manageable size sections. This is good for combinations, troublesome bits or those “hiccup” spots where you lose your place, go into another form or find yourself repeating movements!
Add weights – traditionally done with iron rings on the forearms, the added weight makes you work elements such as strength, stamina, focus, and balance. Forms could also be done while holding dumbbells, or a backtrack/weight vest.
Individual Focus – While executing the form you might choose to focus on the following independent elements:-
- Applications – thinking how each move could be applied against a visualised opponent is perhaps one of the most useful methods of practicing since that is the primary purpose of the forms.
- Integrated applications – have a partner or partners apply the prescribed attacks as you apply the techniques in response.
- Stances – consider how each stance is maximally utilised to give the technique its full potential. Perfect each stance including the transition into and out of each position.
- Static – holding each stance for a set amount of time (say 5-10 seconds) will certainly develop stamina, strength, balance and grounding.
- Level – staying at a designated height (or under a certain level) again works stamina and strength as well as puts focus on smoother and more technically correct transitions.
- Upper Body – concentrating on just what the upper body is doing. By taking attention off of the legs, you can perhaps improve the speed, coordination and precision of the upper body.
I hope that this inspires people to look at their training/practice with more depth. By applying some of the above ideas, I hope that students will be able to appreciate the benefits that come with them.
If anyone has other suggestions on methods or focus that can be applied to forms training, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment below.
Some further ideas prompted by discussions:
Visualising: There is a great story about a man who was captured during the Vietnam war. While in captivity for 7 years he kept himself sane by playing his local golf club from back home in his head. He would visualise every shot and every hole and when he was finally released, he played his old course and despite not having physically played in years, scored his best game ever!
So imagine how good your forms would be if you went through them in detail in your imagination on a daily basis. This is a good aternative during injury periods as well.
Eyes Up: for students who have trouble keeping their eye line up (usually either introverted or thinking hard!), balance a sash or another object on their head and have them try to maintain it by keeping their head aligned.
Pressure: A person’ ability to execute a form is often diminished under pressure. Participting in demos, tournaments, gradings or even performing solo to the whole class can provide some preparation and awareness of this.
Uneven ground: A training environment is usually consistent. I like to perform outdoors where the ground surface is unpredictable. It may be slippery, rough, uneven, etc and makes you adapt your footwork instantaneously.
Clothing / shoes: Doing your form barefoot and in uniform is one thing, but how about with your office wear and heels or uniform and boots? Unfortunately, a real life situation is not going to allow you to get changed into something “more comfortable!'”
More obscure options could include not utilising a certain limb, doing while in water, trying to simultaneously work out a mental puzzle, and more – Get creative but be clear about the purpose! 🙂
Great breakdown of not only the importance of a solid focus on forms but also the aspects of training and perfecting them. Forms are essentially meant to be practiced most often if not everyday which creates the foundation of the particular martial arts training which you are completing. I have found that forms of Shaolin Kung Fu at the Traditional School of Chinese Martial Arts has helped me to greatly increase flexibility and strengths within those ranges of motion, as well as combos and fighting readiness within tournaments. Certain movements and behaviours which would have been impossible to perform idly are now child’s play and I have only just begun my journey. Special thanks to Sifu’s Jason King for his never ending patience with his students.
I often find myself sitting down or lying in my bed, closing my eyes and going through a form. This helps me break down each movement in my mind. I think about real life application for each move and try to remember every details that have been given to my by others students or Sifus.
After the tournament today, Mr Casey suggested I demonstrate more Chi in my forms (fist and staff). I asked him if he meant vocally i.e. “Kia” where suitable, pretty sure his answer was yes (can’t remember the exact words he used to explain what he meant).
What do you think Sifu Jason??
First of all, thanks for your representation of the school yesterday at the State Titles and congratulations on your results. (could you please confirm what they were for me so I can add to the database?).
Now as to your question above. It is difficult to explain what Mr Casey meant without having heard the exact words and context he meant. If you have footage of your performance yesterday I would be more than happy to examine it and give you feedback in relation to your qi. While the karate kiai is indeed a useful expression of internal energy (only done well/correctly by a small number of more advanced practitioners), in my opinion it is the use of breathing in the kiai action that is most important, not the sound made. Having said that, done correctly, the sound is perhaps the most obvious difference betwween 2 karateka doing poor vs good examples of kiai.
A good kiai has an open ended sound on the end – usually a vowel sound. This is because a hard sound like a ‘t’ or a ‘d’ requires a stoppage of breath. Likewise an ‘m’ or ‘s’ sound reduses the breath flow in order to continue the sound. As for demonstrating qi, traditionally we don’t vocalise it (although Master Lee was known to do so occasionally in karate based competitions!), we don’t even ‘try’ to show it. It’s about feeling it, and using it. Someone adequately trained can then recognise that it is being expressed. To superficially show it, through shakes, yells, or mystical hand waving will likely only result in you being seen as a poser. I would focus on the elements that maximise creation and utilisation of qi.
For example, posture and biomechanics. A good upright spine (and head) with slightly tucked pelvis, feng soong body (relaxed but not limp), no hyperextended joints or cramped limbs, the use of the body as a whole i.e synchronised not independent parts.
Next element would be the mind. This means no distractions yet full awareness of the surroundings, relaxed and calm yet fully focussed, and an absolute clarity of the moves you are doing and why they are being done i.e intention and applications.
Next element would be eyes, which show the visualisation of the opponent/s targets and the techniques being delivered. Eyes will generally lead the limbs/body into the technique and show the focus and commitment of the technique.
Last element that comes to mind is the flow and breakdown of the form. If it is a constant string of techniques one after the other than it probably looks like a memorised routine rather than a sequence you are living out in the moment. Of course it is a memorised routine but we run the risk of getting to the point where the form is done on autopilot and we forget to maintain the individual purposes of movements/techniques. Having moments throughout the form where you can highlight or hold the last technique of a combination helps to demonstrate awareness of what you are doing. It also gives you a chance to resettle the focus if needed, and prepare a good breath for the next beat.
Only other suggestion for demonstarting qi would be to find moves in the form that could alternatively be executed as a qi gong technique or else add qi gong movements to the (start of) the form. The skill here would be to do so in an organic manner so that it neither detracts or stands out from the routine, only embellishes it. For this, I recommend working with a Sifu.
Great question Simon, if you or anyone else has suggestions or further questions, let me know.