Friday, 3 July 2015

How many forms can you have before it is too much?

Author performing
Taegeuk Oh Jang
The other day I was thinking about this. Ron (an American Martial Artist who I deeply respect) asked a question on a forum about how a martial arts school would fare if they only taught 3 forms (I am widely parahprasing here because his question is not the point of the post only the train of thought it
resulted in). I answered as I believed: That it would fare great if it taught those three forms in sufficient depth, but only with a relative small but very stable number of adult practisioners. I highly doubt it would become a great comercial succsess because as far as the general public is concerned more forms = more knowledge. I also had a short discussion online with a Master who has his own Dojang about how many forms you can teach which again ties into the question: How many forms can you have before they are too much.

First of all: I am not saying having few forms is better than having many forms or vice versa. I think it is highly dependant on the individual and his/hers training goals as well as his/hers ability to retain and process them. I practise a huge number of forms in my training:

  • Taegeuk 1-8
  • Koryo - Hansoo (also 8)
  • Soak Am ryu Poomse 1-9
  • Chulgi 1-3
  • Ban Wohl Hyung (almost same as Hangetsu Kata)
  • (I am also researching the Pyungahn forms but I do not practise them regularly)
If you take away the last 5 forms which I do not practise regularly but only sometimes for research I am practising 29 forms regularly. I practise them all like the mainstream seems to practise them: As a combination or strings of basics to be perfected as a combative dance with basic applications. I research them for combative meaning but my core studdies of Poomsae applications consists of Taegeuk Il jang, Keumgang Poomsae and Chulgi Chudan Hyung. That is only 3 forms of the 29 I practise. I have found that those three compliment each other very nicely and gives a wide platform of combative examples and principles without contradicting each other.

For me 29 forms is too much to process in terms of indepth study, but I still practise all 29 because I have learned them and I can draw from them additional applications if I want to (and I frequently do) as well as they give a wide array of challenges to my body and mind in terms of "perfecting" the forms. If you do not study forms beyond kick block punch and you are using them effectively as a way to practise basics or any other physical attribute (balance, breathing, structure, coordination etc) it stands to reason that giving yourself as many different "challanges" as possible is a great thing. For
Author performing
Taebaek Poomsae
instance: If you practise forms for learning balance Keumgang Poomsae is great. But after a while it will not challenge your balance the same way it used to do because your body and mind will have adapted to the challange that Keumgang Poomsae poses to your body. You would have internalized it to such a degree that you do not get the same benifit. Now if you introduce another form that poses a different kind of challenge you will keep on developing your balance even more. This goes for any attribute and maybe especially coordination. So as far as I am concerned if you do not study the forms indepth you can practise as many as you can. The only practical limit is training time and how many you can keep in your head so you do not forget them. I am nearing my limit I feel so I am not adding any unless I have to (if my teacher says I need to know more I will learn more but I am in no way seeking out additional forms to get more forms for the sake of knowing more forms).

Some say that knowing only the official KTA forms is more than enough, while others add the Palgwe set or some older Kwan era forms in their syllabus. Some even have the 17 official KTA forms + the Palgwe set + many Kwan era forms in their syllabus. In Karate too there are some styles that has a lot of forms. Shito Ryu is probably one of the styles who have the most, but there are many Shotokan Schools who practise in excess of 25 as their "official" syllabus (allthough I believe if memory serves me right that Funakoshi himself only taught 15). It all depends on your training goal and I firmly believe that you can have both (practise many superficially and practise a few indepth). Both Funakoshi and Mabuni wrote that this was a possibility. Mabuni was clearer on the matter though stating it in clear context:

Kenwa Mabuni demonstrating
Application of Seipai Kata

"If practiced properly, two or three kata will suffice as "your" kata;
all of the others can just be studied as sources of additional knowledge. "
-Kenwa Mabuni
Funakoshi was a little less clear but he describes how after you study a few Kata indepth you will see that they are all variations on a single theme. In other words study a few indepth and you will likely understand the others a lot easier knowing the underlying principles.   

Gichin Funakoshi performing
Kanku Dai Kata
“A student well versed in even one technique
will naturally see corresponding points in other techniques.
A upper level punch, a lower punch,
a front punch and a reverse punch are all essentially the same.
Looking over thirty-odd kata,
he should be able to see that they are essentially variations on just a handful.”
-Gichin Funakoshi
The way I understand the above quote is that if you understand the applications in a deep way you will understand many different forms as they are variations on a theme. I might be wrong however:-)

Both men also stressed that you needed to know forms indepth for self defense while both clearly saw the good point of having many to practise and thereby chosing forms that fitted for you for indepth study. While Kenwa Mabuni specified 2-3 forms Giching Funakoshi never gives such a number, neither does "the patron saint of practical Karate"; Choki Motobu. He simply states:

"All Poomsae use the socalled postures (Poom). In fact, there are many kinds of postures and many kinds of Poomsae. While learning these postures should not be totally ignored, we must be carefull not to overlook that they Are just forms or templates of sort; it is the function of their application which needs to be mastered"
-Choki Motobu
The translator of the above quote kept Kata and Kamae instead of my Taekwondoished version of Poomsae and Poom. Choki Motobu probably knew a handful of forms but he usually taught Chulgi Chudan Hyung (Naihanchi Shodan Kata) to the point that many believed he only knew Chulgi Chudan. His martial art was all about practicality. You did not study with Choki Motobu to learn how to become a better person or for self knowledge. While both Kenwa Mabuni and Gichin Funakoshi stressed character development Choki Motobu stressed combative efficiency. I honestly believe that
Choki Motobu performing
Chulgi Chudan Hyung
if Choki Motobu would have stressed character development and physical education more than he did he too would have taught more forms to meet the demands of that training paradigm. Funakoshi and Mabuni both stressed the importance of knowing a few Kata indepth (like Choki Motobu did) but they both taught a rather wide selection of forms in their day to day training unlike Motobu who stressed weight training, conditiong excersises, striking post, two man drills, naihanchi kata and kumite in his training. The thing is except for the amount of Kata, and the simplified applications that were taught for many moves the same ingridients were present to a large degree in both Funakoshi`s school and Mabuni`s school. The two of them also taught more indepth applications as well, but to which extent is not known. Both Funakoshi and Mabuni gives what would today be labelled practical interpretations of martial forms, but at the same time they taught simplified applications too.
I believe you can have both. I am not sure if I will ever start a Dojang on my own but if I did I think I would teach many forms but focus the training around a few of them. The extra ones would be there for the students to draw additional knowledge from or even focus their own training around if it suited them more than the ones that suited me. The other parts of training would likely be heavily based around the core forms. That way it would not matter if you practised basic techniques, or on the kwon go (striking post), it would not matter if you practised forms, 2 man drills or sparring. It would all be the same working towards the same goal: self defense and combative efficiancy.

Author performing
Chulgi Chudan Hyung
Would I keep much of what we do today in the Dojang I practise at? I think I would, but rather than letting the syllabus be the be all and end all it would merely function as a starting point. I would only have a handfull of students and they would all be adults. At least that is how I Picture it all in my mind. This Picture is likely to change as I keep studying and keep gaining new insights and knowledge. Perhaps in 10 years I will only be doing Taekwondo because of health? Today that is an important part of the reason for doing Taekwondo along with the reason for self defense, but if health became the primary factor for my motivation it would likely change the way I structure my training and "my" Taekwondo as well.  

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  1. Great information/background on the subject Mr. Nilsen. :) It leads me to want to do more research on the subject! One thing that keeps "nagging" at me when thinking about the subject is how we may be learning the number of forms in an inverse manner to what those early karate pioneers did (that's one bit I'd like to check more). If I recall (and probably not correctly), it was Funakoshi who claimed to have spent his first 10 years on chulgi/tekki/haihanchi, then began adding other forms. I wonder if it wasn't a similar experience (whether that one form was chulgi, sanchin, or whichever pattern) for the other early pioneers. Once they had a deep understanding of the movements of the first pattern (whether it was 2,5, 7 or 10 years), they began adding additional patterns to their arsenal. With the introduction of the belt system, etc. - having a pattern per belt (whether it be karate or TKD) has seemed to become the easy way to establish earning points (to move to next belt). I wonder if this doesn't add (as one of many factors) to the difficulty in "seeing" the combative efficacy of pattern movements beyond WYSIWYG...

  2. " One thing that keeps "nagging" at me when thinking about the subject is how we may be learning the number of forms in an inverse manner to what those early karate pioneers did (that's one bit I'd like to check more"

    You are correct Ron. I am convinced that the Karate pioneers who learned Karate before the introduction of it to the Okinawan School system learned and studdied indetph one form (or 2-3) for a considerable time before adding more to their "Collection". The first generation that seems to have collected a lot of forms for the sake of preserving them is the generation With Funakoshi, Mabuni and Myiagi.

    I dont see the modern trend of having one form per belt to be the primary obstacle to the difficulty of seeing more indepth. If I will ever open my very own Dojang I would likely teach one form pr belt myself but I will continue teaching the first one for at least a couple of years so the other forms are just done for the sake of movement education. I believe that the students will learn to see the other froms much more easily for what they are and have to offer if they learn their first form indepth.

    The problem for not seeing the more indepth things is in my opinion the lack of understanding of the original terms (Makki is not just "block"), simplification (again look at how People today associate every makki techinque With a static Block), and how the instructors teach each form very superficially. For instance after you know the sequence of Taegeuk Il jang you abandon it for Your next form only revisiting the solo performance of taegeuk il jang every once in a while to not forget it.

    Hope my rant makes any kind of sense. If I were to open a Dojang not belonging to any Association at all I would probably teach just one form for 1-3 years before moving on to the next one though ;-)