"Performing with hands and feet and conditioning of the body is the beginning of the study of the art of Tang Soo Do. In actual combat, form does not seem in an obvious way to be a necessary part of the martial arts. However, practicing forms perfects the ability to perform hand and foot techniques freely. This is fundamental to making the best use of one's body at all times."
What Bruce Lee may have failed to admit with this statement is that his genius, his mastery of martial arts, was the direct result of years of classical training in the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu. He started seriously training at the age of 14 after being beaten up in a street fight. He was instantly hooked and trained to the point of obsession. By the age of 30 he had fully formulated his own "style" though he insisted it was merely a name he used to describe his "mirror" to self-awareness.
The idea of classical training in martial arts persists, and my experience is that it is still an excellent way to learn to "make the best use of one's body at all times." Forms training is both an application of martial arts techniques and an artistic expression of one's personality. Classical forms training provides conditioning of the body both internally and externally. Proper breathing exercises vital organs and helps develop the natural flow of energy and power (Ki). Executing techniques with proper form, tempo and power develops muscles and builds muscle memory in the nervous system. These factors contribute to improving dexterity, martial arts ability and even overall athleticism.
In my personal experience, it was years before I felt at ease sparring with fellow students and seemed like forever before I performed well at tournaments. But I always enjoyed my forms practice and practiced diligently. Then something happened; something clicked. I started to win forms competitions. Then one year, after never having even placed in sparring, I won match after match. It was at a National event and in the end I had won in what was considered one of the more difficult divisions.
So the next time your instructor leads you through a form exercise for the 100th time take comfort in the knowledge that it will help you learn to make the best use of your body at all times.
In a future article I'll discuss the different phases of learning a hyung and the aspects of forms training that make it both martial and art.