Playing the Form

The "Push Down" posture of the Old Yang Tai Chi form
A look at the benefits of Form training for the modern martial artist, by Medway Tai Chi Society.

FormsKataPoomse – whatever name you know them by, they are a traditional method of training in many systems of martial arts.
The practical uses of Form training (for the remainder of this article, the phrase “form training” should be taken to include Kata and Poomse training) in today’s society have been discussed at length by martial artists  and laymen around the world for the past few decades, and with the emergence of modern Mixed Martial Arts competitions, and the practical physical training regimes that go along with it, many ‘traditional’ Martial artists are left wondering why they should bother training this seemingly ‘dead’ method of practice.
In this article, I will be looking at the different benefits of Form training for the modern martial artist, though I hopefully will not spend too much time on this subject, as it has been discussed in depth many times, and I feel I cannot add much more to the Pro/Con debate, aside from my own personal opinions and experiences.
My main focus, therefore, will lay in the different methods of form practice – the different ‘intentions’ as it were.
For the major part of this article, I will be talking about form training from the perspective of Chinese martial arts, specifically Tai Chi Chuan (Taijiquan). However, I sincerely believe that the information is applicable to ALL martial artists who practice form training, and I hope that this article may add a little more understanding to your practice, no matter what style you study.
Benefits of Form Training
There is a lot to be gotten out of form training. Form’s act as a ‘reference book’ of our styles particular fighting techniques ensuring that the whole system can be readily passed on to students, without omission or degradation.
From learning a form, we can taken single movements, or small sets of movements, and learn how they can be applied as attack and counter-attack against an aggressive opponent. We can practice the application of fighting angles, which techniques work best in which circumstances, which techniques can flow into each other in a realistic and applicable way. This is the most basic level of form practice – learning movements.
Another benefit of form practice is something which, in the Internal martial arts, is known as neigong, or inner work. What this boils down too, is simply the ingraining of certain body mechanics into our way of movement. From breathe control, to waist movement, to weight shifting. Our forms help to mould our body into the ideal condition for our styles techniques.
Tai Chi is well known for its’ slow moving form practice. It is this slow movement through the forms that greatly aid the development of the “Tai Chi Body” – that is, a body that is soft and agile, and complies with the essential body principles of Tai Chi Chuan. By moving slowly through our forms, we are able to focus on fully transferring the weight from one foot to another before taking a step. We are able to bring our attention to the centre of the lower abdomen, where we are able to control the movement of the legs, and corresponding the movement of the arms. Slow form practice helps us to relax and release excess tension in the hip joints, allowing a greater range of motion in the waist, which is where we distribution our Jin (refined power) for fighting techniques. Slow form practice also allows us to pay attention to those oh-so-important small details, such as keeping the shoulders and elbows dropped, tucking the tailbone, sitting into the legs, suspending the head, etc etc.
It is all of these benefits that form practice has on a basic level. And all of these things, when looked into, can greatly improve our practice.
When can also use form practice to train our intention – our ‘fighting instinct’. We can visualise and opponent in front of us, and picture ourselves going through him. This takes form practice beyond the simple replication of empty movements. Intention brings life to lifelessness.
Different ways of Form Training
This goes way beyond simply slow, fast, intention, meditation and so on. One of my Tai Chi teachers said the same movements of a form can be practiced in as many as 20 different ways, depending on what you chose to develop in the moment. Here, I plan on giving a brief overview of four different ways of ‘playing the form’ – each with its’ own particular point of focus.
1)      Posture-by-posture slow form – This is the first step in developing good Tai Chi practice. As stated above, this stage develops the basic body mechanics needed in Tai Chi, as well as the primary methods of power. This stage also helps the student to discover “hotspots” of tension in the body, and, using the breath and mind, how to release these tensions to create smoother power.
Every posture is held for anything between 5 and 30 minutes at a time, to allow the student to deeply explore his or her own body as it exists in each position. Where is the tension? Where is the muscle fatigue? And so on...
2)      Connecting the form – In this stage, the student begins to take the level of focus and internal body awareness he has developed in the first stage, and apply it to the transitions between the major postures. He or she begins to incorporate the use of small circles in the joints in order to “reel the silk”. This has the effect of connecting and strengthening the tendons, sinews and ligaments that form a major part of the whole-body power we seek to achieve. It is useful to make your movements long and extended in this stage, to truly stretch out and feel the connections.
3)      Internal Pressure form – This stage seeks to find and increase the internal force of the body, through holding the postures and using the intention to guide your force forward. In a basic punch position, you extend your intention forward from the face of your face, as if willing your arm to extend further, though without physically stretching your arm further forward.
4)      Fast Form – This stage begins to teach the student how the art would be expressed in actual combat. Steps, jumps, turns, strikes, kicks, all practiced with speed and power, whilst remaining soft and relaxed. The circles that we began to work with in stage 2 get smaller and smaller. This stage of form practice will begin to express hidden movements more, such as elbows, knees, gripping etc.
I hope that this article has given you a new insight into the possibilities of form practice. I sincerely believe that these stages can be applied to form training in all styles, allowing practitioners everywhere to bring their training to life in a new way, and gain greater benefits.

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ashley's picture

Thank you for the article. Many new students to martial arts commonly ask why katas/patterns/forms are so widely practiced and for what reason they have to learn them, this article gives a very good insight into why they are so commonly practiced. I also didn't really think much about the four ways of carring out forms, but it's completely true and usefully described. This applies to more than just Tai Chi, ubt to other martial arts too, as explained in the article.
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

Thanks Ashley :)
clouddragon's picture

Thanks for that, it's good too read something positive about forms patterns etc.. I really disliked this aspect when I first started and often deemed it as the least important. This was my ego as I simply couldn't balance and sink and lacked in any kind of finesse. I was more suited to the other aspects but over the years and especially the last couple of years I have began to fall in love with it. This has led to a kind of moving Nei kung which has really lifted in importance to me. It has certainly been a challenge and now I can confidently say I have found the effortless movement I have been searching for all these years. I don't practice a fast form but I have seen these in other styles. However I do practice a mirror form and a little of the reverse form. As you said new self defence applications appear and variations in their use. Reversing certain parts of the form have opened up new applications. There is even a form within the form we call the inner form which is supposed to be a secret form. This is only so as the beginner would fail to understand it or possibly be put off as it all seems a bit complicated. Anyway I'll shut up. Thanks for an interesting article.
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

Thanks for the feedback mate :) You say that you don't have a fast form - that doesn't matter! The same form can be "played" in all these different ways. Have you tried playing your standard slow form as a fast form? Using varying speeds, emissions of power, natural footwork, and so on? There is traditionally no "fast" form in Yang style - but at the same time there is no "slow" form - it's just THE form; one form meant to be played in all 4 of the methods above, and more!
clouddragon's picture

Yes I practice it slow or fast, I also teach broken rhythms for those entering competition, the variations in speed make it stand out and appear far more dynamic to the judges. As for fast forms the Wu family were advertising a fast form in Hong kong and were saying Tai Chi cannot be used for fighting without it. Cheng tin-hung was so annoyed he confronted the Wu family leader. After a short scuffle and Chen tin hung sweeping him to the floor very quickly, the Wu teacher confessed it was only a ploy to gain more students. Master Cheng separated our school from the Wu style and renamed it Wudang. I like the idea of holding form postures as you also described, which is something I sometimes do in class (or alone) with the square form. This form moves to the count of three and doesn't flow like a form should do. It is a teaching tool but can be used as a Chi Kung as you can stop and hold each position (some being easier to hold than others) as you will know. Wudang weapon forms are usually done with speed and are very difficult to do slowly, although I teach the old to do them slowly and omit all the jumps and leaps.
Varekai22's picture

As you said, this subject is widely debated but I feel it need to be brought up again. Forms are one of the more important parts of training so thank you for sharing.
Mikeitup's picture

Forms are an important part of many martial arts. they are often misunderstood and often disregarded as just useless(MMA fanboys anyone?) It all depends on how they are trained and taught IMO. If you just are shown the moves of a form and just practice and practice it will just be a nice looking form and you might win some medals for performing it> But could you fight with it? NO!! If, on the other hand the form is broken down into the techniques and you are shown the applications of techniques and you practice them, drill them with different partners and using focus pads etc you will be able to understand how they are used for fighting. Alot of schools don't train using applications and that I think is the problem. There is nothing wrong with forms. Just my two pence. Mike
clouddragon's picture

This is true but even when the forms are broken down and applications known, we need to strengthen the body. For Chinese martial arts we need a form of Martial Chi/Nei Gong. Punching pads and sparring is not enough. Most Chi Kung and certain Nei Gong practised these days is more therapeutic than martial so we need to find a Master who knows the real thing. It is said; Chuan without training Gong even if practised for a life time is still in vain.
Medway Tai Chi Society's picture

Well said, mate. My next tutorial video will be looking at one of the neigong systems I use as a foundation training method. This system will be applicable to students of any martial system.
Mikeitup's picture

It's interesting to hear other peoples opinions. When i did Lau Gar we used to do the usual sit ups, pushups, squat-thrusts etc. Then we used to do stance training but no conditioning. (I hung a wooden post wrapped with rope in my garden to condition my arms). In the beginning we used to have to hold ma bo for 10-20mins at a time but over the years this ended up being 5mins or less. I think alot of prospective students were put off by this type of training because it's too much like hard work (gung fu, anyone?). When I started Chow's mantis we did the usual warm ups and then would do stances, drills and conditioning (sam sing, gau choi etc). A lot of styles do NOT stress the importance of conditioning and I think a lot of it has to do with people not wanting to get hurt or a few knocks and bruises. If this is the case why take up a martial art?. In Chow Gar a big part of the training is nei-gung to build up the body and strengthen the arms,ribs, back, legs etc. The guys I train with have very hard arms and hands and we use dit dar jow all the time. The guys I train with have also trained in Hung Gar, wing chun and Escrima and I have noticed that each of these systems is taught with combat applications as the main goal. I am very lucky I found a good instructor and school.