Well, that’s certainly a traditional saying, but I think if it takes you an entire lifetime to master a form, there is something seriously wrong. Actually, I can think of three things that would have to all be wrong.
1. Your instructor would have to be crappy.
2. You’re not practicing enough, and not spending enough time thinking about the form.
3. You ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed.
Of course, I know number three because you’re putting up with number one, and continuing to engage in the two aspects of number two, and you can’t just figure it out.
I have generally found that instructors of the “just do what I do” category fall into two categories: Really good at doing and really bad at teaching, or Really bad at doing and really good at conning people.
When I was taking Kali, Wing Chun and Muay Thai, we were allowed to go to all of the instructors various classes in different locations. I don’t know of anyone other than me who did so. At one of the locations, the instructor was teaching a Kali class and a separate Wing Chun class. The only people in the Kali class were a 60-something and a 70-something pair of little old Southern ladies. There were more than ten students in the Wing Chun, and the instructor wanted to concentrate on the Wing Chun class.
Now, we were halfway through the quarter, and the two little old ladies had not yet managed to get down the first move. The young Chinese instructor from Hong Kong really didn’t understand them at all, and had more ego than teaching skill.
I readily agreed to teach them for him, and started going over the course material. It was readily apparent to me that they just weren’t getting it. Now, an important thing to remember is that Kali is actually a double sword technique, and you practice with the rattan stick so you don’t kill people in practice class. I looked at the women and asked them if they cooked from scratch. The younger one had only been doing it for fifty years. At that point, I knew I could teach them. I explained every technique in terms of kitchen uses of a butcher knife that they had been practicing around twice as long as I’d been alive.
Before the regular instructor came back, they had mastered considerably more than that quarter’s course material in Kali, including all the basic attack and defense moves. Then one of them asked me, “How would I use this for self defense?” I answered, “Cut up a chicken.” They then answered, “Oh,” followed by a horrified, “Oh…” and then a delighted “Oh!” of realization.
Now, I realize that I had certain advantages in having cooking the same way as these ladies since I was 8, growing up studying German long sword, and having had at least three quarters of Kali prior to this, but what really allowed me to do this was that I have an open mind, think about what I’m doing, and understand it.
When the instructor came back and asked how the class had gone, he was obviously gloating. He had been spending the last quarter competing with me, not very successfully. I was just there to learn. Of course, when they showed him the techniques that they had mastered for over fifty years, he was more frightened than astonished. He never did ask me how I managed to teach them that. As soon as they thought of it as a butcher knife, and were told what cooking techniques applied, they were masters of at least everything I had shown them that day. There are very few people who want to fight someone with a blade who can filet meat in less than a second.
This is what I call using the same experience points twice.
I know that there are people who will say that you can continue to get things out of a form indefinitely, but that is really dependent on two factors. One is the person who is doing the practicing, and the amount they’ve managed to get out of it so far, and the other is the type of form in question, and how they were taught it in the first place.
There are three types of set, or kata: sets that teach the basic moves, sets that teach a particular strategy, and sets intending to recreate a particular fight or battle. Siu Nim Tao from Wing Chun, and Skip Knees from Muay Thai are examples of sets intended to teach the basic moves of a style. That is like learning how the pieces move in chess. Thunder and Earth from Shaolin Kempo Ku Shu is a particular tactical attack. That would be roughly the equivalent of learning the Indian defense in chess. No chess master is going to spend the rest of his life just practicing the Indian defense. Certainly, there are perspectives that you can add to your practice as time goes on, from going back and practicing the sets and techniques you started with as your perspective changes, but saying that you have not mastered that technique would still be a stretch.
Every form or set, every technique or kata, has to be understood from both sides. If you do not know the technique that you are defending against, if you cannot visualize it as a two-man form, then you really haven’t been taught the form. When I go through sets with my students, I will go through the motions on the other side so that they understand what they’re defending against and where they’re attacking. Since they understand what they’re doing, it’s much easier for them to learn the form in the first place and grasp its meaning and intent. Yes, continual practice is needed to hard-wire the form and techniques into the body, and so that you will remember the form, and honestly to help you stay fit, but, hopefully, you understand what you’re doing and aren’t only waving your harms in the air like you just don’t care.
While mastery itself is a life-long process, the mastery of a single form should not take very long at all. While continued practice will increase your proficiency, and thinking about it should continue to bring greater insights over the course of a lifetime, those insights really come from you and your understanding of martial arts in general, not from the form itself so much, unless of course you were missing stuff.
For some further reading to help you understand the process of learning, well, anything and put you on the road towards mastery, try The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, by Timothy Ferris.