Friday, August 31, 2012

Form, Forms and Formlessness

There is no doubt Bruce Lee, his thoughts on martial arts, and his philosophies of life in general, have influenced many martial artists, combat athletes, and self protection professionals for about five decades. He influenced several of his contemporaries, but many more after his passing.
Some follow the so-called Jeet Kune Do Concepts or Conceptual training and are quick to dismiss Kata or other more traditional training that was eschewed by Lee in his many discourses.
Others believe that you must achieve a state of formlessness where every movement is instinctive and requiring no thought. The infamous "I don't punch, "IT" punches!"
There is an inherent problem with these approaches; for one, they lack efficiency in practice and on the other hand they make for difficult transmission of information.
Following concepts or looking to just improvise in  the moment just because that was what Bruce Lee said, is akin to staring at "The finger pointing at the moon while missing all the heavenly glory" :-)

Reality! ...what a Method??

Bruce Lee actually had a Method to teach his students, he did not use concepts. He wanted to be the most efficient fighter he could be and he wanted the same for his students so guess what; he had a methodology to transmit that information. Yes, the master of eclectic modern martial arts would tell is students to stand a certain way, move a certain way and punch a certain way and so on.

He would also give students very detailed, and personalized, take home fitness and combat assignments which described combinations, tactics, and exercises to be followed by the student in order to improve.

These combinations when practiced in the air repeatedly is what in Japanese martial art is called a kata,

What? Bruce Lee did Kata and he had his students do kata?  Well yes and no. Ill tell you what I mean.

When most people shadow box in a sense, they are doing kata. They are practicing techniques against imaginary opponents, in the air. But wait, you say, "when I shadow box Im improvising I don't just get in a stance and then repeat a block and then punch" ; but do you? 

If you learn a basic combination like a jab, cross, hook and you repeat that, you just did a miniature form. Its the same as any old Kata, so lets get to the bottom of this by discussing what form, forms and formlessness really are and how can we get there.


Form is the shape of a thing as distinguished from its composition. A punch's composition are the muscles, tendons, bones, joints, nerves, and ligaments. How we get them to generate impact is form. So what makes good form?

Good form when talking about combative tactics should be defined as the optimal integration of structure, movement, and breathing to achieve the desired effect. Here is one of the keys of real form, the focus is on the effect on the target and not on what exact position the force transmitting limb or limbs is/are. True form FOLLOWS function.

Although humans come in all shapes and sizes, most healthy humans are equipped with two or less arms, two or less legs, one head (no accounting for what the contents of said head are). Barring pathological or traumatic issues we all have the same composition. So if I figure out a really efficient way to throw a powerful elbow, then the exact same mechanics will help a man that weighs 300 lbs and 90 lbs teen age girl throw the most powerful elbow they are capable of. We are all accountable to the Laws of Physics so bio-mechanically there is nothing else I can do to make the teenage girls elbow have a better effect on the bad guy. The rest is left to Doctrine, Strategy and Tactics, subjects I discussed in last month's Blog.

In music the element of good form would be the ability of generating, delivering a sustaining a specific note.

Learning the optimal form for the tools of the art we practice is like learning scales. We must understand what notes sound like before we play music.


In martial arts Kata or Forms are a specific arrangement of the art's tactics in a "mock fight" versus imaginary opponents.

Proponents of Kata often cite the variety of applications of the many movements in forms and also expound of the hidden meaning of several movements.
Opponents of forms usually denounce them as useless and state they would never train that way; but as shown above they actually do "forms" they just don't call them that.

The real problem with the former is merely one of efficiency. In this day and age there is no need to hide our movements from the prying eyes of our enemy and we also know a lot about how real bad guys move, so lets get down to business and practice the actual movement just like we are going to use it in a confrontation.

The problem with the latter is that very often, the practitioner wants to abandon solo skill practice all together in preference to sparring or other two man training, never reaching the full potential of proper form.

The equivalent of forms in music are compositions by other authors being practiced by musicians in order to learn to put the notes,chords and scales together into complete songs.


This is the Nirvana described by many of the proponents of Lee's work. The ultimate goal of the martial artist. The problem is in how we define formless. Technically an untrained person is formless; they have no structure , or movement other than instinct to propel them in the battle. It would be like me grabbing a saxophone and jumping in with a band. I could try to improvise, and sound may come out, and by accident some of the sounds will match the accompanying instruments but it would certainly not be music.

What people mean by formlessness is really a Flow State, or being in the zone. A point where your processing and fighting skill are performing in such perfect union that the opponent has no chance.
In this flow state there is Form. The music example for this would be Jazz. The players improvise riffs throughout the performance and not two performances are alike. But those riffs are composed of notes and scales ( form) that  have been mastered by the musician. The same with a fighter in flow state, he is still using the basic tactics and movements he learned in past sessions, except he is not bound to a specific sequence.

To summarize the points above I will use one of Bruce lee's quotes:

"Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick." -Bruce Lee

Basically the Lee wanted us to understand that before we become formless we must have some form to liberate ourselves from.

Tony Torres
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