Saturday, 11 May 2013

What is the point of Basic Forms (Kihon Kata/ Gibon Poomsae/ Hyung/ Tul)

I have seen the question in the headline so many times on different discussion forums over the years
Image source: Tae Kwon Do 1965
By Choi Hong Hi
that I think it warrants its own post on this blog. The question in a nutshell is two fold:
  1.  What is the point of the basic forms if the time spendt on those could be used in teaching the more advanced ones? (The viewpoint of purely form not function)
  2. If the basic forms were developed only for movement education and not applications should we only teach/ practise the advanced forms so we learn both movement and application? (The viewpoint that the basic forms does not have applications)

First I only find it fair to distinguish what the "basic forms" are as opposed to "advanced forms". In Karate the basic forms are often viewed as simple forms of new creation that are taught to beginners so that they can more easily learn the "advanced" forms (often more difficult to perform and a much older creation) later in their training. Examples from Karate (Goju Ryu) would be the Gekaisi Kata series:

Click the youtube icon on the lower right if the video does not work
In Shotokan in the 1920s Gichin and Gigo Funakoshi created the Taikyoku Kata series, a series of forms consisting of few techniques and a simple performance line. The mainstream view for these Kata are "movement education" but today on a world wide scale you will find few Dojo that teach these for any lenght of time (if at all).

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Some Korean Martial Arts practisioners might recognize the Funakoshi creation to be the same as "Kicho Il Hyung" and yes it really is. Some might be more diplomatic and say that Hwang Kee based "his" Kicho series on the Taikyuku series but it is essentually the same:

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The Moo Duk Kwan (Hwang Kee`s school of Martial Arts) was a very big and influential one in Korea at the time of the merger of the different schools to form Taekwondo, so it is not suprising that many Masters still teach this series prior to starting with the "real" forms. Point to ponder:  Funny thing is that even though it is a Funakoshi creation it is more common in Korean Martial Arts than in Funakoshi`s own school Shotokan. Sometimes the Korean Martial Arts are closer to the Shotokan roots than Shotokan itself..
Personally I did not really had to take a stand in this issue as in the Dojang I belong to we only learn the Taegeuk and Black belt series of Poomsae created by KTA in the 1960s-70s. The Taegeuk series (Taegeuk = Taikyuku in Japanese) is a series of 8 forms that has a very logical progress in the performance of the forms from very basic (Taegeuk il (1) Jang to very "difficult" (Taegeuk Pal (8) Jang. The first one concists only much of short easy stances, and very basic techniques and combinations whereas the last one contains a wide variety of stances, two different variations of jumping kicks, long combinations, Danjun breathing (Ki developing excersises) etc. That being said Taegeuk Il (1) Jang was not as "basic" as the basic forms demonstrated in the above video clips as the performance lines were a lot more difficult, there are a wider variety of techniques and there are kicks in it.
The last few years however my Master has developed his Soak Am Ryu forms (often called the "TTU Poomsae") based on his training and teaching experience, and his Kigong studies. The three first forms in Soak Am Ryu are Basic forms of his own creation yes, but basic forms nonetheless. They are called Gibon (basic) 1, 2, 3 Jang. (I apologize for the poor execution of techniques and well a lot of things, but these are the only videos showing these three first forms)
Click the youtube icon on the lower right if the video does not work
As you can see my Master has followed the same line of thinking when it comes to keeping the performance line simple, but at the same time he does have more variety than the Kicho series when it comes to technique contained within the forms.
Now faced with these new "Basic" forms and having all the official forms I had to make a stance if I wanted to devote training time for these or if I should not teach them (including them in my own training was a given though:p )
I used my students at the time as ginea pigs and started teaching the three forms to see if there was any benifit to gain from them. These students were yuths (12-17 years old) and varied from green belts to red belts.
What I found was that there is literally no place to "hide" in these forms. If your technique is lacking your performance will scream it out loud for everyone to see. There is no speed, no flashy moves nothing to distract from pure technique concentration. Therefore I always cringe when I see myself performing the forms in the clips above. I imidiatly see that my feet are telegraphing by turning before the step (had to eliminate that one) when moving forward and likewise I lift my heel before moving backward. I found that it was much easier to correct my students when using these forms as I could see their faults with ease in these basic forms before the longer combinations and speed hid some of their faults in the more "advanced" ones. As an instructor I soon saw that the training of these basic forms helped correcting faults in technique and this showed in the more "advanced" forms as a result:-)
I then taught a white belt Gibon Il (1) Jang for several weeks before suddenly turning my (our) attention to Taegeuk Il (1) Jang wich is what is required by the Kukkiwon for the Belt Promotion Test. The beginner sucked up Taegeuk Il (1) Jang like s spounge absorbs water and learned it in record breaking time. The experience of learning the simpler Gibon Il (1) Jang made the learning proccess of Taegeuk Il (1) Jang that much simpler. As a bonus the raw concentration of fewer techniques made his Taegeuk il (1) Jang a lot more "polished" than my experience with white belts testing for their yellow belts.
The conclusion based on my own experience both as an instructor and as an eternal student of Taekwondo is that the inclusion of basic forms based on "movement education" is sound and I would reccomend to other teachers to include them as well. Yes they are basic, but this "basicness" is its own strength! It makes the polishing of techniques easier, the process of learning new forms a lot more easier and it is a great form for self development (film yourself doing them as I did and you will surely find a lot more faults screaming at you than if you were performing some more "advanced" form).
"But what about the application within the forms? If the forms are stripped of application it is also stripped of their souls are they not? If the purpose of forms is to reccord and teach fighting principles based on examples of movement is it not better to concentrate on the more advanced forms as the basic forms are "only" for movement education?"
There are in my view 3 paths you can go when looking at "eungyoung" (applications) and gibon poomsae:
  1. Teach no applications (leave that to the more "advanced" Poomsae)
  2. Teach Basic/ Literal/ Surface applications (block kick punch stuff)
  3. Teach advanced/ sophisticated/ deep applications (through Boonseok)

There are many who believe that basic forms are only for learning the movements and to prep the student in the learning process of forms. As an instructor I see value in this, but teaching three forms seems a little overkill to me. Especially if you spend 6 months on each of them. That amounts to 1,5 years of training "Taekwondo dance" with no applications what so ever...

Click the youtube icon on the lower right if the video does not work

The second path is one I adhere to. As the forms are simple they fit nicely in with the block kick punch applications. In my own teachers basic forms the part where you move forward 3 times followed with backward 3 times were first explained to me that you went forward to attack three times, and then you went backwards defending against identical attacks. First form = forward three punches, defends with 3 middle section blocks and counters on the last move. Second form = forward attack with front kick and punch, defend low block against kick, middle block against punch. Third form = forward three times front kick two punches. Defends against kick with low block, two middle block (outward and inward) against the two punches. Counters on last move.

This helps the students to learn the "hard style" applications, that can be tweaked with body evasion and shortening of the blocks to make them work in sparring and other situations. Suddenly we have something workable we can use. Certain "guiding principles" as basis of "Boonseok" (analisys of forms) can also be introduced like the turns are to show where you move in relation to your opponent who attacks from the front (source: Kenwa Mabuni).

We also have to remember one important but yet simple thing and that is to keep our applications simple. The Gibon Poomsae are made by the most frequent techniques from the "advanced" forms. The reason why they show up so many times? Becuse they are high probability techniques with a lot of different usages. Gathering these techniques into simplified forms follows the "KISS" Principle (nothing to do with the awsome band I`m afraid) wich stands for "keep it simple stupid". Suddenly the strength of the forms becomes their simpleness.

Path three was alluded to in the paragraph above but here we skip the "basic" applications and jump straight to the "advanced" applications. Also here is a good starting point where you can teach one "advanced" application for each technique, giving the student a valuable starting point for "boonseok". For instance in Gibon Il (1) Jang we start from Chumbi Seogi to Jochum Seogi Horison Chumbi Seogi (ready stance to horse riding stance both arms at the waist). I taught the form to some red belts who found it boring to do this basic move so they did it with no power. I asked one to do a bear hug on me from behind with his arms over mine. I then did the first movement wich freed me from his grip and gave him an elbow in the solarplexus in reward. The movement of the arms, the change in stance, everything works in a combative context, you just need to find the context. The form is followd by low block in the same stance wich can be interpreted as a throw (reach behind with the chamber and throw him over you. You do not bend in the form but the eastern notion of "ki" training in the forms will always keep you from bending in the form).

Suddenly the boring basic forms can be a doorway to open up the pandoras chest that is forms applications. The limited variation of techniques gives the beginning student more than enough time to  practise these "practical" applications.

Click the youtube icon on the lower right if the video does not work

Spending 1,5 years on them now seems almost too little time if you ask me:-) Personally I like to follow path two because learning the simplified Taekwondo or "Hard Style Taekwondo" is a good place to start in any way. It gives you a good offense, control of body, distance, defensive techniques and like the basic forms "Hard Style" Taekwondo`s" strength lies within its simpleness. 1,5 years detailed instruction should suffice an avarage adult student though (of course this will vary both between individuals and how much training you do in that 1,5 years:p )

Actually there is a path 4 you can go: ditch the basic forms and concentrate on the "more advanced" ones instead.

I hope you found this post informative, if not then at least I had a lot of fun writing it:p

Happy training:-)


  1. Replies
    1. You are most welcome:-) I hope you enjoyed it.

  2. Hello
    good post, and not only because i agree with so much of it. actually it is right on my web page--"the basics are the advanced techniques". i think too many people fail to realize this simple truth. the paramount importance of getting the fundamentals right was really the point behind my article in this months TTKD mag. i hope to continue the series in this vein.

    anyway, coming from a MDK school i learned all of the Ki Cho forms as basics, and they continue to this day. there was actually a lesser known set of 5 that we called Kibon, which was supposed to be basics but were actually more complicated than 80% of the Taegueks.

    i think that the consideration of a basic form should come as no surprise to anyone learning any skill. few people learn to swim by jumping into the deep end of the pool! you don't learn english starting with james joyce, or spanish with cervantes.

    with regard to begining with the "hard style" i believe you are right on track. this is the basic mindset that you have to offer a beginner. no subtlety- just "go for it!". as a side note to compliment the point in G. Mulholland's excellent book "Four Shades of Black" he mentions that the whole purpose of the beginners kata Gekesai-Dai-ichi (video above) is in the name, which translates as "Attack and Smash #1"
    Great minds think alike?

    1. Thanks and good to have you back here Richard:-)

      I remember reading that Myiagi got the idea for the Gekesai series from Anko Itosu`s Karate. He observed Shurite Karate and made the Gekesai series as a starting point for his own students.

  3. hello
    btw, thanks for comments on website. i posted replies to the issues that you raised take a look when you get a chance.

    1. I will Richard. There was a ton more stuff in that article series (click into Richards site and look for an article series called "structure". The link to his website can be found on the right of the screen under interesting blogs)