Memorization vs Expression

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Recently I made a comment about Expression based martial arts vs memorization based martial arts on the fitness webpage Darebee.  I’ve been asked to expand on those comments.

Memorize [memuh rahyz]
to commit to memory; learn by heart

A memorized martial art is one that requires you to memorize your movements for a purpose other than self defense.  In my background, Taekwondo falls into this category.  It has 24 “forms” (poomse or tuls) that allow you to practice the core Taekwondo movements without a partner and without physical targets.  Across the various dojang these forms are within a few degrees of identical.  Chun-Ji is Chun-Ji is Chun-Ji.  Nineteen moves performed in a sequence that is the same regardless of the Dojang.  If I told all of my students to perform the same form, they should all be able to do it in sync with each other.  Beginning, ending, kyaping, all in unison.

This extends beyond the forms as well.  Taekwondo has “sparring one steps” and “sparring two steps” that you practice with a partner.  You bow to your partner, they perform an attack and hold their position while you perform your counter movements.  In some Dojang, they people performing these movements don’t ever get close enough to actually touch.  The emphasis is put on memorizing the correct sequence of movements.

There are even competitions for being able to perform these forms.  Don’t get me wrong, they are beautiful things to watch.  Check out the Serbian Bronze medal ladies here.  It almost looks like a haka.

Sparring is where these arts come to life.  The chaos of not knowing what your opponent will do.  I say “opponent” because unless the individual Dojang lays down extra rules for it, you don’t have a attacker/defender relationship.  You have a pair of people both attempting to strike each other while at the same time attempting to defend themselves.  Sport schools who spar by tournament rules will even count points based on strikes to specific targets.  This tends to eliminate certain targets from their training because they have no point value.  Sometimes it even degrades to eliminating techniques because they score few or no points.  As you can see in this video, the competitors are so focused on landing kicks while protecting scoring zones that they leave their heads exposed so that their arms can cover their ribs.

Expression [ik-spreshuh n]
the manner or form in which a thing is expressed

An “expression” martial art lacks the rigidity found in a memorization art.  This doesn’t mean there isn’t some level of memorization; it means there is more wiggle room in how you perform.

In To-Shin Do, we teach the same 12 Kata at level 1 regardless of the dojo you are in.  When you first learn them, they are very straight forward.  There are 5 steps that are in all of them – Discern, Defend, Disrupt, Deliver, and Discern.  Outside of shadowboxing we always train these Kata with a partner.  They decide just how they want to express the threat.  Will they throw a sucker punch haymaker?  Will they try to gut punch us?  Will they throw a rounding kick to my head?  All three of these can be seen as the same concept- a rounding attack from outside your center line.  So, we use the concept best suited for these attacks – filling the space and delivering our own punishing strikes.  We could certainly practice each of these as it’s own Kata, but then we would need a nearly infinite number of Kata to deal with every possible variation.  Instead, we express a single idea based on all the variable presented to us.  This allows us to solidify our decision making process by developing a “family tree” of concepts.

When we spar, we don’t really spar.  We call it “Free Response” and we have a very distinct good-guy bad-guy relationship.  This eliminates the competitive attitude and allows us to focus on expressing our concepts.  As we advance in skill our attackers do as well.

When we strike, we never learn to pull our strikes, instead we learn to complete each with appropriate intent to elicit the correct response from our target.  We don’t play tag for points.  We look to safely deliver our strikes in such a way that our target is actually affected by them.  Otherwise our target will just shake them off and keep attacking us.  For an example, you can watch me here.

In summary, an Expression Martial Art is less concerned with everyone looking identical and concerned with the concepts becoming part of the practitioner.  Memorization Martial Arts, if studied in great depth, can be just as effective, but require the individual to discover the concepts on their own.  Expression Arts are unique to the individual while Memorization Arts tend to be unique to the lineage.

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