Friday, May 26, 2017

Five Reasons Why Martial Arts Forms Don’t Suck!

“Those who are enlightened never stop forging themselves. The realizations of such masters cannot be expressed well in words or theories. The most perfect actions echo the patterns found in nature. “ ~ Morihei Ueshiba

The martial arts forms suck argument has been going around the martial arts world for a long time. It states that traditional martial arts are rigid and spend too much time mindlessly following the choreographed forms passed down from antiquity, while a fight in real life is dynamic, unpredictable and spontaneous. The purpose in me writing this is not to totally lay to rest that argument because there are valid points to both.

That said, I do believe that there are good reasons to continue to practice forms. For starters, forms have combat tested moves within them BUT it is up to the motivation of the practitioner to unlock them. It is hard to balance keeping the knowledge alive for future generations, and then letting that commitment go to follow the current trends in fighting. Whether or not the two sides of the argument are right or wrong depends on the context in which we are living. So if you were a police officer I would recommend focusing more on the dynamic fighting part and less on forms. On the other hand, if you are looking for a healthy alternative to gym exercise and want a just little understanding of martial arts then forms are perfect for you. I think the problem comes in when you get confused as to what are your main objectives.
Currently, at this point in the US, violent crime has been decreasing since the 70’s. Sure, there are places where it is bad and it is up to you to understand that in your environment.  Moreover, your context can change for a number of reasons and if it does we have adapt our training accordingly. Currently, chronic disease and accidents top the list of causes of death, with murder not even making the top 10.  When I assess my environment I look at national trends and local ones. In my context, I just don’t see a danger by other humans. Does that mean I turn a blind eye and go on my merry way? Absolutely not, I think it is important to prepare for a possible violent encounter. I just do not think it is necessary to focus everything I do on it. So this is where forms come into play. Like I mentioned previously, the moves are there. So why not practice them to develop your body as a weapon, and in the age of steep cuts to Medicaid, use it to prevent chronic disease?  

Without a doubt, one of my favorite forms is the Aikido 31 Jo Kata. A “jo” is a Japanese term for a 55” long wooden staff. O’Sensei, who is pictured above holding a jo, created Aikido, a Japanese martial art that uses the flow of spiral energy and joint locks to redirect an opponent’s momentum. O’Sensei used the jo often and created some small sets, consisting of a few moves together. It is said that he developed his love of the jo from bayonet training he did during his service in the Russo-Japanese war.  He continued using the jo until he was a very healthy elderly man. His student Morihiro Saito created the 31 Jo Kata from the different sets O’Sensei passed to him. Here is a video of Morihio Saito performing the 31 Jo Kata.
I did Aikido intensely for a year or so in 1995 until I got a wrist injury that interfered with my progress in Aikido. I moved to Tai Chi because of the healing benefits, but I really missed Aikido and kept the form in my practice. Despite my love of the 31 Jo Kata, I eventually forgot the moves after a few years. I always wanted to bring it back. I did keep a smaller set memorized and then one day I decided to study Morihiro Saito’s video and regain the form for my training. Now it is a major part of my practice.

I wanted to bring it back because I find that the jo form is beneficial in 5 ways: 
  1. Power 
  2. Fitness
  3. Riai 
  4. Self defense
  5. Fun

Power Doing forms, especially weapons forms, helps you develop proper body mechanics to build power. When you repeatedly strike and move from one posture to another you can work on your body mechanics, which helps you understand the rhythm of releasing power. A great example is let's say you had to break a down a door with a stick or shovel. There are postures in the jo form that follow the same kinetic chain needed to muster the power to accomplish that action. It is not the form that teaches you how to apply the moves, it is your imagination. I figured that one out and now when I practice the form my intent is totally different. Can you practice that move without the form? Absolutely, yes, but the question I would ask is will you. Hell, you might even forget it. The form keeps the postures alive for as long as people practice them, even if they are taught by someone who doesn’t understand them and is a terrible teacher.

Fitness Doing the form over and over again for an hour is a great workout and gets my heart rate beating really hard. I haven’t measured the VO2 Max of it but but I would say that is definitely qualifies as a high intensity cardiovascular exercise, which the CDC recommends you do 75 minutes per week, along with some whole body muscle strengthening exercise. Since the staff weighs about 1-2 lbs and you are swinging it at pretty good speeds, you are definitely strengthening your muscles. Just take a good long look at that picture of O’Sensei (above). He is around 80 years old in that picture. Additionally, there was a study done comparing middle-aged martial arts practitioners with sedentary people of the same age, and it found that the martial artists were healthier on a wide variety of measures.

Riai is a Japanese martial art term that means understanding of the core principles behind the mechanics of punching, joint locks, and throws in relation to weapons training. For example, if you practice yokomenuchi, an overhead strike to the side of an opponent's head, you can see that the mechanics of that strike can be done without a weapon, such as using a hammer fist strike. That same motion can be used in grappling and in a forearm block. The idea of forms is to use your imagination and partner practice to unlock these relationships and innovate other uses. To me this is the main reason to keep forms alive. The danger comes when we mindlessly practice these forms and then think mindless practice alone will help us overcome an attack, or worse when we think we are invincible simply because we practice them. This is why I think the argument against forms is important. It keeps us honest.

Self defense
The author in his teens
First, check out this news story. It depicts a woman, who most likely had little to no self defense training, and probably less training with a weapon, fending off an attacker with a baseball bat. She got in some good hits, but she could have used some training to increase her effectiveness. The fact is a little training goes a long way. One could do forms with a little self defense application and in a dire situation be effective in deploying a weapon similar to the training weapon. There is no way that someone with little to no combative training can pick up a baseball bat and beat a competitive stick fighter, but if you have been working out with a staff for a while and a dog attacks you you would definitely have a better chance than someone with no training. I have been working out with weapons since the early 80s, and I can tell you honestly that I would not be able to compete in a stick fighting competition. But in the very rare possibility that I had to wield my staff to defend my family, I believe I am confident enough to dissuade any would-be assailant from continuing. In addition, a jo is first and foremost a common stick, which is ubiquitous in many environments from urban to rural. Sticks, pipes, and baseball bats can be readily found throughout the world, from India to Southern California. A stick is a feature of most environments.

Lastly, it is fun to move with a stick and develop your body at the same time. O’Sensei saw his jo practice as a sacred connection to the universe. I feel that same connection--it is kind of like a pantheistic dance partner! We all know that the more you see an activity as fun, the more likely you are to continue it. So I am counting on my love of the jo to increase my health, to decrease my health bills, and, if need be, to protect me in a dire situation.
The author pictured with his dog and walking stick

As the quote at the beginning of this post says, the most perfect actions echo patterns found in nature, and I believe that the moves collected in the 31 Jo Kata do just that. They echo patterns that are found in nature, while intrinsically embedding them inside you. You are learning how to develop power and when to release power. These are not the only parts of the equation if you want to learn to become a skilled fighter. But in my context, where self defense is not a high priority, practicing these forms helps in the pursuit of health and provides a small amount of security. But most of all, I do it because it is fun. It genuinely brings a smile to my face when I practice.


  1. It is up to the teacher to know and explain applications to the student-not the other way around. If the applications are properly understood then your fundamentals will be correct and vice versa. The majority of martial artists do not understand application which is why toulu or kata is performed one way and applications another instead of there being a direct connection between the two

    1. I am sorry sunahbill, I cannot agree with you. What you describe in your comment is quite a rigid way of thinking about life and learning. I believe in the creativity of humanity and do not think that there is only one way to go about things. Just to be clear, I do think having a teacher is very important it just isn't the only way to learn.

    2. Thanks for commenting! I appreciating sharing thoughts.