Mr. Wiscomb’s guest post over at Dojo Rat’s blog got me thinking about my own martial journey and how forms fit into it. In the post Mr. Wiscomb discusses the three levels of form development.
- Level One – strength and foundation
- Level Two – interpretation of forms or bunkai
- Level Three – improvisation within the forms
I’ve experienced all three levels to varying degrees.
While one could argue that all beginners experience Level One–no matter the style!–that’s not how I interpret the message of Wiscomb’s post. I think he’s getting at the fact that many “hard” styles–even at the advanced levels–spend the majority of their time using forms as a base for the development of strength and foundation. The clear example winner here would be my two runs in taekwondo.
For proof that taekwondo techniques were once effective for real fights, just look at the taekwondo forms. They contain strikes to the head, knifehands to the throat and elbows to the temples. However, mostly due to the influence of Olympic rules, examination of these “old school” taekwondo moves have [mostly] been removed from the forms curriculum.
It is true that their is a small minority of TKD schools that teach “old school.” However, far more probably fall into the middle ground of my last school: forms are foundational, mainly taught for tournament competition, and, while self-defense is taught, it’s usually separate from the forms. Effective for self-defense? Usually. Could it be better? Definitely!
My greatest experience with what the Karate folks would call bunkai came during my limited run in Preying Mantis Kung Fu. Here each form had a corresponding two-person set. The techniques learned in the forms were expanded upon in the sets. Moreover as we learned the forms we always examined the techniques in the form. While this did lead to a deeper understanding of the form and its applications, the only drawback is that advancement took longer. (Yes, I know that some of you will think that’s a good thing!)
My experience in level three came in two martial arts: Chin Na and my foray into a street self-defense course.
Chin Na: Certainly not forms per se, however, it’s my best experience with martial arts technique improvisation and examination so I’ll mention it. We learned the Chin Na techniques in steps and once we reached a level of proficiency we participated in freestyle drills. At first the drills were fairly static, but, as we acclimated, we started to flow. Attacks would flow into new attacks as the defender would flow into different counters. Sometimes you’d succeeded in catching them in a lock and sometimes they would lock you or escape. I do wish I could have drank deeper of this particular cup but it was not in the cards and my time in Chin Na ended.
Street self-defense course: Quite frankly the problem was the instructor. Nice guy? Yes. Effective teacher? Probably not outside of his boxing lessons. He also had experience in Karate, Silat, and Wing Chun. On top of that he was trying to learn Brazilian Jujitsu. Every time I think of him (and sometimes me) I remember an old Japanese proverb:
“Man who chases two rabbits often goes hungry.”
Ultimately his street self-defense course was a mish-mash of stuff. Honestly, the only thing that probably saved me was the fact that I do have some martial experience. This allowed me to keep up, sometimes learn, or at least avoid getting hurt.
The one thing he taught that I kept was a very bastardized Wing Chun dummy form. In fact I often faked my way through his other lessons but did pay attention to this form. He developed a laundry list of form techniques based on his martial arts knowledge. I’d estimate 70% Wing Chun, 15% Karate, & 15% Silat. He also did a good job of having us examine each technique outside of the form and also on each other. Once we reached satisfactory proficiency he encouraged improvisation. Didn’t like his low kick entry? Then try a knee strike!
Ah, but some of you ask: “Bob, what about your Aikido adventure?”
We’ll save that post for another day.
Where am I headed next? Only time will tell…