Archive for October, 2009


Thoughts from GM Cook on “Forms”

Ni Hao. I’ve been thinking about this subject after, once again, recently experiencing a familiar interaction with a couple of new students. Bruce Lee once famously ( or infamously depending on one’s point of view ) stated in an interview, that he thought ” Forms are a road to nowhere “. Me, I take the latter point of view concerning this subject. I don’t know what caused him to reach this conclusion and I can only speculate. I speculate that Yip Man and his previous teachers must not have explained ” forms ” to him. It is true that in some very traditional schools ” forms ” are taught merely as a dance. Once all the forms in a system are learned, the student and Master  ” return to the beginning ” and begin to break down each movement in each ” form .” Other teachers like myself and those that taught me had a different philosophy, that being teaching a ” form ” and breaking it down into the present individual techniques plus the concepts those techniques express before learning another “form “. Either approach will work, but a teacher may lose a student, especially in these modern times when a student is not some sort of indentured servant to the Master at his school or a monk at a temple, if the teacher fails to impart some level of education as to what the ” form ” being learned is really all about. I raise this subject because of two very recent interactions with students. One who is a student in my Self Defense course and another who is a student in my adult class. Both have experience in other styles from what I teach. The Self Defense student studied years ago and quit after three years. His reason for doing so was that after nearly three years of study he was allowed to participate in contact sparring. He told me how the blackbelts at the school looked incredible running their kata. And yet when it came to sparring,  this ( at the time ) young adult who had run the streets of Baltimore beat every blackbelt in the room. He asked himself what he was learning if he could beat the top students easily as a blue belt. He felt as though he had been wasting his time for three years and walked away from study. My full time student has experience with several other schools and near ten years of study. He has been with me a short time. The other night the students were working on a quite basic technique taken from the very movements I had taught this fairly new student. As they were working this technique, I would step in and do the technique to his partner talking all the way through it, explaining each individual movement that made up the complete ( and seemless ) technique. I showed him exactly where in both the ancient animal based Qi Gong exercises conducted at the beginning of class and in the very first ” form ” he is learning where this technique came from. A near visible lightbulb flashed over his head. Both of these students said almost identical words to me…” Wow! You know, Master Cook, nobody ever explained a form like this to me before “. My self defense student said these words relating to the techniques he had learned as I do not teach any ” forms ” in the Self Defense course, but this is irrelevant to this discussion. What is relevant is that in both of these instances ( and this scenario has happened innumerable times in my 30 year teaching career ) two people that had studied two different systems at schools in different parts of the country from different instructors had very similar experiences. They learned ” forms “, but had no clue at all as to what they were doing beyond running them like some sort of a choreographed dance routine. Very sad. I do not look at ” forms ” as a ” road to nowhere ” although I agree that one cannot become a proficient fighter by running them only…one does need to engage an ” opponent ” in practice to really comprehend concepts like timing, speed, balance, etc. along with the physical feelings of contact made when blocking, striking, throwing,etc. Yet this idea remains – ” forms ” are a reference manual of technique and concrete ideas and abstract concepts. Every movement executed in a ” form ” has – or should have – purpose. A ” form ” should be understood to be an educational tool that instructs, through endless repeatition, footwork, handwork, breath control, muscle control and tension, and technique. Most important, a ” form ” should awaken in the practitioners mind the concepts the techniques and the individual movements in the ” form ” represent. Many ” hard ” and ” soft ” techniques are very, very similar if not identical in their individual concept…it is how the concept is expressed that is different. Many techniques or movements also have ( as the “principle of opposites ” expressed through the Tai Chi Diagram – the concept of Yin and Yang _ demands ) both offensive and defensive applications. Beyond this separation of offense / defense, many techniques also contain conceptually the very idea understood by serious students of ancient Chinese Philosophy…Yin and Yang dissolve into nothingness, negating each other, becoming one. In applied technique this means that we do away with the idea of separating offense and defense and execute both at the same time. All of this can be come to be understood through learning ” forms “, but only if the ” forms ” are taught in complete context. Complete context is not as an empty dance, but an encyclopedic reference manual that can be understood on many levels and , just like a book, offer deeper and deeper comprehension each time it is ” read.”  Of course, one must have a teacher that understands the ” concept of Forms ” in this manner. If not, as like  the students mentioned above I have encountered in my career, ” forms ” will always be an empty dance and ” a road to nowhere “. What a pity…

October 2009