How Many Forms Are Too Many?

Is the learning of endless forms necessary for improvement as a martial artist?

Welcome to The Water Method; thoughts and theories on Tai Chi in the modern world. In today’s post, I’ll be discussing whether or not the repetitive learning of countless forms is a help or a hindrance to our practice.

Just how many forms do we have to learn to attain mastery of an art, and at what point are we learning forms for the sake of it? Is there a limit to how much we can learn and retain, and if so is there even a way of figuring out what this number is? No matter what style you practice, whether it’s an external art or an internal one, whether it’s Yang Tai Chi, Sun Tai Chi, Lee Tai Chi, or anything else, you will no doubt have had to rehearse forms (or katas for the Karate students among you) over and over again to pass your grading and advance through the ranks. Which in turn means that we all have something in common: we’ve all been there, trying to force another routine into our heads so that it flows effortlessly, looking strong yet supple, and easy yet powerful. We’ve all studied the applications of each move to understand why they’re done the way they’re done, and kicked ourselves for not getting that last move just right on an otherwise perfect run through.

Why did our masters decide to teach us things so similar, so close to each other that they knew we would confuse things and mix them up?

Take Yang style for example, which I’m going to do as it’s what I’m currently studying. There’s the 108 step Yang form, or the 108 form for short; some lineages add or subtract a few moves here and there so that you may have come across the 103 or the 110 as well, although they may be essentially the same in practice. But then there’s the 42 form, which is a vastly condensed version of this as well, and an even more concise iteration which is the 24 form. In the past few decades we’ve seen the rise of the 16 and 8 step forms too, which are designed to convey some of the basic principles in just a handful of movements, making it easy for beginners to build up their confidence by successfully completing a form while also starting to understand what this Tai Chi business is all about.

The moves look similar – in fact, to a layperson they may look like the same moves but repeated ad infinitum in the higher numbered forms. And yes, learning the same, or extremely similar, sequences every lesson can trip us up; raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself looping from one set of moves back into the same starting position, or even veering off into a completely different form – yep, there’s quite a few raised hands at the back I see. Why did our masters decide to teach us things so similar, so close to each other that they knew we would confuse things and mix them up? It can’t be just for giggles can it?

Ideally, I’d like to think that our instructors aren’t just setting us up for a fall and recording the footage to send to TV programs, so I’m going to choose to believe that there’s a higher purpose in all of this. Yes, the routines are using the same techniques and yes, they are also conveying the same principles again and again, but that is because the forms are merely tools being used to put these points across to us. If you’re focused on memorising the shape and the outline of any of these forms for the sake of learning the shape and the outline of them, then I need to remind you of the following great piece of dialogue from the Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon, “It’s like a finger pointing to the moon – don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory!” And yes, he does say it with an exclamation mark at the end.

In Taoism, the way that we’re looking for is always shifting and changing… much like water (which sounds familiar but I just can’t place where I’ve heard that before). Once something is crystallised and fixed, it is in danger of becoming stagnant and inflexible, and prone to breaking. If you’re utterly determined to choreograph the perfect representation of the 24 step form, for example, yes it will look fantastic, but by being so concerned – so worried – about the look of it, your body isn’t going to be flowing like the way it should.

There’s an inherent danger with being rewarded with a physical, tangible prize.

A particularly common example of this is seen throughout the martial arts world when we see beginners get their first coloured belt. It’s a great feeling, and one that anyone should be proud of, but there’s an inherent danger with being rewarded with a physical, tangible prize. Once you’ve got one, you’re tempted to become fixated on obtaining the next one, so you train with the sole purpose of getting that next belt instead of improving and growing as a fighter in all directions. Which means that I’m going to hit you with a flurry of questions now: If you’re next grading doesn’t ask for you to learn weapons, why bother learning weapons? If you don’t have to spar for more than five minutes, why push yourself to go beyond that? And what happens once you’ve got your black belt, and there are no more belts to collect? Where does your motivation come from then? That’s the path to stagnation. I’ll leave it to the Buddhists to make their point about the pursuit of material possessions, but I’m sure you’ve all heard it before. So keep learning those forms, and as many as you can, as they will hep you develop in the right way. But always remember that they are the journey, and not the destination.

That brings us to the end of the post; I hope you’ve enjoyed The Water Method and will join me next time for another discussion about the martial arts in the modern world. So until then, be like water.

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