09 November 2014

ITF Patterns: Artistic Expression or Self-Defence? -- Neither

Recently there was a poll on a Taekwon-Do Facebook group that I belong to that asked whether or not practitioners view the ITF (Chang Hon) patterns to be more involved with “artistic expression” or more to do with “self-defence skills”. When I responded that it has more to do with combat than creative expression, some members were quite surprised. After all, I have argued both here on my blog and in print that I do not believe that the ITF patterns are combative manuals. I have also claimed that the ITF patterns were indeed composed with certain aesthetic principles in mind, and even that parts of it have symbolic value, not solely combative value. Since people found my answer to the poll surprising, I explained my position there, and decided now to post my explanation with some amendments below:

With regards to the patterns being “artistic expressions,” I do not believe the performance of the ITF patterns is like a dance performance. Firstly, during dancing the purpose of dancing is in fact dancing, while for the patterns, their purpose is not “performance.” Some people may indeed practise the patterns only for performing them at competitions, but the patterns were not composed for the purpose of competition. A sport focus is something that only came in much later and is a secondary or peripheral usage of the patterns.

Rather, the patterns function as one of several aspects in the ITF pedagogy that teach particular skills. In other words, the patterns function as a type of drill—as a training tool to teach particular skills, of which the ultimate aim is self-defence. (Note, I’m not saying the patterns are self-defence skills; instead they add to the skill set that can contribute towards self-defence.)

Secondly, in the case of dance, dancers usually have lots of artistic freedom to creatively express themselves. This is not the case for the ITF patterns. They have a very specific number of motions, and require a specific way of movement. The patterns are artistic expressions, but only in a limited way for the performers. Instead, they are the artistic expression of their author(s)—or to use dance terminology, their choreographer(s), which in this case is General Choi and his helpers that composed the Chang-Hon patterns. When we perform the patterns, we are in a manner of speaking merely repeating the motions prescribed to us by a choreographer. Or to use poetry as an example, we are merely reciting poems of a great poet; we are not the poets ourselves. I don’t think the patterns lend themselves that much to personal artistic expression. Of course, someone reciting a poem can in a limited way creatively express him or herself through, for instance, vocal inflections, dramatic pauses, word stresses, and so on. Similarly, one can have some creative expression in the ITF patterns, but they are limited. Someone reciting a poem is not composing it, but merely repeating it. This is the same for performing the patterns. There are other Taekwondo groups who do what is known as “creative forms” that may indeed cross over into personal composition; however, ITF Taekwon-Do does not have this as part of its pedagogy or competitions. (ITF Taekwon-Do does have a self-defence demonstration category at championships, which may relate to this idea of creative expression, but which I will leave for another discussion.)

Other drills, such as one-step sparring, allow for much more personal artistic expression. There is not much room (i.e. freedom) for creativity while performing the Chang-Hon patterns. I’m much more creative while doing sparring.

The following is a paragraph from a related article of mine that was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do: “Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution—in that the patterns do indeed contain poetry and symbolism, and are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.”

Unlike Karate’s kata which are “combatives manuals” and wholly without “symbolism,” according to Dr Clayton, it is undeniable that the Chang-Hon Taekwon-Do Tul do indeed have symbolism and that certain aesthetic elements were considered in their composition. The floor plan of a number of the patterns are based on Chinese characters, for instance; and some patterns have symbolic starting or ending positions. In this way, the Chang-Hon patterns are like poetic compositions. They were designed with aesthetic concepts, such as symbolic meaning, in mind.

I’m getting the sense that some people feel uncomfortable with that idea, as if the inclusion of aesthetic concepts such as symbolism somehow distract from the patterns. That is a faulty understanding of what a symbol is. For example, a red rose has the symbolic meaning of romantic love. The fact that the rose symbolizes romantic love doesn’t make it any less a rose. “A rose is a rose is a rose.” The fact that a punch with a left fist at the end of a Chang-Hon pattern symbolizes tragedy doesn’t mean that it does not still function as a punch. Yes, the patterns are poetry that include symbolism, but the “vocabulary” of the patterns remain offensive and defensive techniques. “A punch is a punch is a punch,” to reference Bruce Lee. In other words: a punch may be more than a punch—it may be a punch that symbolise something abstract such as tragedy—but in the end it is still a punch.

Furthermore, understanding the patterns as poetry, rather than combative manuals, allow us interpretive freedom. A manual is specific with usually just one result. When you follow the instruction manual for putting a table together, there is no room for interpretation of the instructions. You have to follow the instructions in only one way, otherwise your table will not be stable. On the other hand, a poem is open to interpretation. Different people can come to different possible “answers” when interpreting a poem. Some answers are more plausible than others, but seldom is there only one ultimate answer. When we look at poems and deduce self-defence applications from them, we are busy with poetic interpretation. In other words, people like Stuart Anslow that explicate particular self-defence applications from certain parts of the Chang-Hon patterns are busy with interpretation—not unlike one would interpret a line from a poem—rather than simply taking the obvious application from the ITF Encyclopaedia, which would be a following-an-instruction-manual approach. 

To summarise, when I say that the patterns are not combative manuals and therefore not fully developed self-defence “lessons,” and when I mention that the patterns do have creative and symbolic value, I do not by this mean that the patterns have no eventual combative value, nor that they are akin to dance performances. Taekwon-Do defines itself as the “Korean Art of Self-Defence”—and so ultimately all parts of the Taekwon-Do pedagogy contributes towards the goal of self-defence. The patterns are merely one of several tools in the ITF pedagogy that contributes towards self-defence skill. Understanding that they are a tool that contribute to a self-defence skill set, rather than actual self-defence practise, provide us with three important realizations: Firstly, we can acknowledge that the patterns are not realistic representations of a real combative encounter. Secondly, now that we are not under the dangerous illusion that we are somehow engaged in real fighting, we can safely use the patterns as a training tool to practise certain skills for which the patterns are ideally suited, like kinaesthetics. And finally, acknowledging that the patterns are “poetry in motion,” we have the freedom to interpret them for different purposes. For example, some parts of a pattern might be used to practise certain skills as part of a dynamic context drill, or as the catalyst for a self-defence drill, or for practicing specific footwork. In other words, the patterns provide material for training different skills.

07 November 2014

On Teaching Self-Defence Drills

Teaching self-defence skills to people is always a tricky business because it is difficult to say what will work or not. Sometimes I teach a particular skill to students, and while it might work for nine out of ten of the students in the class, there might be one person struggling with it. I can walk them through it, and they might get it the technique to work under guidance, but when they do it by themselves they just fail to get it right. Generally I avoid overly complicated techniques for self-defence training, keeping in mind adrenalin dump and the loss of fine motor coordination during a violent conflict. Therefore, I don’t think the “fault” lies in the technique, but is more likely just that the particular skill just doesn’t come naturally for that particular student.

Now, another instructor, convinced of the effectiveness of this particular technique will insist that the student practice it repeatedly until they “get” it. I’m of a different opinion. If the technique doesn’t work for a person with a certain degree of “naturalness” at the student’s current level of proficiency, then the technique is even less likely to work in a stressful context. Also, I don’t want students to become fixated on one particular technique. Of course, we do try and practice particular techniques and try and improve their efficiency, but I seldom hammer on just one technique as the ultimate (i.e only) self-defence skill for a specific situation. Instead I try to provide students with a skill set—a series of related options that are founded on particular martial principles (for example, positioning). I may teach a few techniques and principles and then tell the students to experiment and find what they find to work for them against different opponents. Without being prescriptive, I then comment on what they come up with. For instance, if what they are doing puts them in a vulnerable position (rather than an advantageous position and the opponent in a disadvantageous position) I would point that out and make some suggestions or have them come up with an alternative.

The problem is simply that a violent encounter is dynamic (i.e. chaotic) with only limited predictability. Fixating on one technique, and insisting that it should work is limiting and unrealistic. The ability to quickly adapt and find other solutions is a much more important skill than doing something because that is how their instructor taught them.

Paradoxically, when I started teaching this way I at first threw out all “pre-arranged” drills because I believed they were unrealistic and there is no use in teaching things that are unrealistic. I didn’t make students memorize any sequences or specific combinations. I just taught principles, but not particular techniques and expected them to come up with their own combinations within a dynamic context. What I found was that students could not apply the principles in coherently effective ways. They simply didn’t have the “vocabulary” – an appropriate arsenal – to deal with the situation. I soon realized that for beginners there is much value in fully pre-arranged sparring drills, even though they are unrealistic. Pre-arranged sparring drills are a great tool for teaching a “vocabulary of fighting”. Once the student already built up some arsenal of appropriate techniques and combinations, should one decrease the abstraction (by adding more “reality”).

When taught properly, ITF Taekwon-Do is supposed to provide a continuum that facilitate a progression from high-abstraction, low variable practise to low-abstraction, high variable practice. In other words, at first things are predictable while students get to practice particular techniques and strategies. Then the abstraction level is decreased, and the variables are increased. Things are less predictable and the student needs to literally think on their feet. The more variables there are the less prescriptive do I as the instructor get. Ultimately I have to give free reign to the student and allow them to do whatever works for them in that situation.

Facilitating such a progression from high abstraction, low variables (very prescriptive pre-arranged drills) to low abstraction, high variables (unscripted drills) can be difficult, particularly when you have students who are at very different levels. For instance, in a recent class I had one black belt (2nd Dan), a blue belt, a yellow belt, and white belts. They are all at different places along the continuum. Making sure that each one is practicing (and reviewing) appropriately at their level requires some nifty pedagogic negotiation on the instructor’s part. The instructor often has to improvise his or her lesson to fit the dynamics (levels) of the class that can change on any given day.

Nevertheless, this part of the class—working along the continuum with the aim of self-defence—is what Taekwon-Do is for me. If Taekwon-Do is—as it defines itself—“the Korean Art of Self-Defence” [호신예술]—then working towards self-defence is ultimately what all training boils down to.

27 October 2014

Contemplations on the Evolution of ITF Taekwon-Do as a Style

I watched the great Karate movie Black Belt again. The movie's opening sequence has the three main characters—all karateka—performing Sanshin, which is a type of kata during which the whole body is tense and the muscles flexed, so that all movements during the kata requires muscular tension. This got me thinking about hard styles versus soft styles again, and where exactly ITF Taekwon-Do fits in.

First, back to Sanshin kata—this form is basically a type of isometric exercise presented as a kata. Although it is originally from China, it is probably more famous for being practised by the Karate styles of Okinawa. While Sanshin-kata does present some basic punches and blocks (and make use of only one stance although some stepping, applying the same stance, may occur depending on the version practised), it is generally not trained for practical application, but almost solely as an exercise to improve muscle tension, breathing, and mental focus. Some sources may also include Ki-development in this list. During Sanshin-kata the instructor will often inspect the students' form (known as shime checks) by hitting different parts of their musculature to test if there are any weakness, any lack of tension. In some Chinese versions of Sanshin-kata, the kata can be performed with some level of relaxation, particularly while a technique is in motion in order to facilitate faster motions. In the Japanese / Okinawan styles, however, Sanshin-kata is usually done with emphasis on tensed, flexed muscles throughout the performance.

Obviously not all Karate kata are performed in the way that Sanshin-kata is performed. Nevertheless, for quite a number of Karate styles, Sanshin-kata is considered foundational, and while the other kata might be done at more realistic tempos, there still generally exist a similar sense of “hardness” to them, a similar sense of focus is striven for. While Sanshin-kata is practised by many Karate styles, especially the original Okinawan systems, it has become the bedrock of full contact Karate systems such as Kyokushin Karate; the reason being that Sanshin-kata is well suited to strengthen and toughen the body in order to endure hard, full contact strikes. Their bodies are so hardened that blows that would put a regular person down, they take withstand.

Contrast this with a soft style martial art, where the most advanced practitioners are praised not for their muscular tension or hardened bodies, but for their extreme relaxation. The aim is not to harden the body in order to endure impact, but rather to follow a Taoist approach of “going with the flow,” of yielding to the force, of non-resistance. Think, for example, of an Aikido or Tai-Chi master who are often praised for being relaxed in their motions, for their muscles being strangely supple with hardly any tension and when doing quite difficult techniques.

I once heard a legend of a Tai-Chi master who had a sparrow perched on his finger—immured. To fly away, the little bird needs to push away with its legs, but so sensitive was the Tai-Chi master's to force, that whenever the little bird tried to push away, the master's arm would yield to the bird's push, and so negating the force, keeping the bird captured by it's inability to push off of the master's finger. This legend epitomizes the relaxedness striven for in true soft style martial arts that completely yields to the attacker's force, and use the opponent's force against them.

The aim of this post is not to set up one against the other. I'm not asking which is better, a hard style approach or a soft style approach. What I do want to discuss here is ITF Taekwon-Do, and how I am of the opinion that while Taekwon-Do definitely started out as a hard style martial art, it has evolved into something else.

There is no question that in its early days, Taekwon-Do was a hard style martial art, with strong roots in (Shotokan) Karate.

I'm not sure if the early Taekwon-Do pioneers practised something akin to Sanshin-kata. However, when I started Taekwon-Do there were Sanshin-like moments in the patterns in the style of Taekwon-Do I did at the time. The slow motion techniques in the Chang-Hon patterns were often performed with a tension and concentration that is reminiscent of Sanshin. I still remember seeing black belts perform those slow motion techniques with such muscular strain that their limbs vibrated and veins stood taught in their necks and on their foreheads. This was particularly the case during pattern demonstrations at tournaments. Back in the day when kihaps were still performed, the moves that were accompanied by kihaps were equally tense—a good kihap would be accompanied by a face purple with tension. Now I'm not sure if this happened at other Taekwon-Do pockets as well, or if it was peculiar to the system I trained at, which had very strong connections with (Moo Duk Kwan) Tang Soo Do, in which such slow motion movements done with Sanshin-like tension and concentration, and roof-lifting kiaps were part of a number of their forms.

I still remember the hard and strong urgency with which we performed our patterns when I started Taekwon-Do. My brother and I often competed in “all style” tournaments which brought Taekwon-Do, Tang Soo Do, and Karate practitioners under one roof, where we competed together in both sparring and forms divisions. In the forms division practitioners performed the forms of their respective styles. Obviously the judges who were representatives of the different styles in attendance at these tournaments often did not know the actual sequences of the forms they judged. The criteria they used to assess the forms therefore did not include “correctness of the form,” but used the other typical criteria when judging forms within the hard style paradigm. My brother and I won quite a number of medals at these tournaments—clearly we had performed our forms within the hard style idiom of the Karate, Tang Soo Do and Taekwon-Do judges in attendance. I doubt those judges would be equally accepting were I to perform a form following my current ITF Taekwon-Do way of movement. While they may see power at the moments of impact, the ITF practitioner seems far too relaxed, not nearly tense enough in between the “impact” points, with a tempo that is much too slow. And in my imagination I find it almost impossible to think how these judges would have judged, say, a Yang Style Tai Chi practitioner performing his or her form. Unfortunately at that time there were no soft stylists who attended these tournaments, so I never had the opportunity to see how they would have been judged, but I can guess that the Tai Chi form would score terribly low on most of the typical criteria, such as power, intensity, and speed. Even such judging criteria as concentration and balance would be problematic, since concentration in the Karate sense means something quite different than what it means in the Tai Chi sense, and balance in Karate is often judged according to an understanding of linear lines of movement and transference of force, rather than the gentle circular lines employed by Tai Chi Chuan and the subtle shifts of the centre of gravity.

Although ITF Taekwon-Do is something different from Tai Chi Chuan—I mean, it is not a typical soft style martial art—it is definitely not the karatesque hard style martial art it was in its infancy. I realise that I have written about this numerous times before. My argument is that ITF Taekwon-Do is not a hard style anymore, in the way that Karate is a hard style. There is no version of Sanshin-kata in ITF Taekwon-Do's 24 pattern set, neither are there any remnants of Sanshin like motions in the forms, something that still existed in the little Taekwon-Do pocket in a small town in South Africa where I started my Taekwon-Do career 20 years ago. We have all but removed conditioning from our patterns: the stances are not unnecessarily deep to help with strength training, nor are the movements performed with an urgent tempo to mimic combat. These days I'm spending most of my time learning how to relax, practising how to move with the least amount of muscular tension, and even trying to initiate movement through the very act of muscle relaxation. I find ITF strikes move more like a ball-on-chain than like a crowbar, to use Bruce Lee's analogy, with emphasis on sequential motion / kinetic chaining and what the Chinese would call fajin, or balgyeon as it is known in Korean.

I find it difficult to define this new hard-soft style hybrid that ITF Taekwon-Do has become. It refuses to be boxed into a neat definition. One moment it depicts the hardness of Karate, the next the suppleness of Tai Chi Chuan. It often flows along linear lines associated with Karate, but those linear lines are consistently initiated with subtle circles and curves that one gets in Chinese styles. Then there is that peculiar bounciness—seen also in the Korean folk art Taekkyeon, which is completely shunned by Karate where keeping level throughout ones movement is the expected norm. A major part of this “bounciness”—i.e. the sine wave motion—is to instil the habit of relaxation and suppleness, but also to teach a way of “controlled falling” somewhat akin to the Chinese internal art Xingyi.

ITF Taekwon-Do has indeed evolved into something quite interesting and it is still in the process of evolving. I like how it caters to different people. There are those that want it to be (and remain) a hard style, and that is how they practise it. There are those, like myself, who embrace the soft style aspects that have become part of its DNA and I enjoy this part of ITF Taekwon-Do's evolution. I particularly like that it is an organic evolution, rather than an institutionalized one. Apart from the original sine wave motion impetus, this blossoming of “soft style” elements is not specifically pushed for by any of the ITF organizations; nevertheless, more and more people are recognizing it and practicing it. Neither are any of the big organizations actively advocating it, or systematically explaining it. Expositions on the sine wave motion, it's emphasis on relaxation, and its relationship to soft style concepts such as principles of the circle, the wave, and so forth are done mostly by independent writers such as myself and Master Manuel Adrogue. The fascinating thing about this is that commentators like myself and Master Adrogue and others have no previous training connections and who do not come from the same lineages, yet we interpret the principles in a similar way, and come to the same conclusions. For instance, when I first met Master Manuel Adrogue from Argentina and we had an opportunity to talk and train together, we found to our big surprise that in many ways we move the same—we had thought that our way of interpreting ITF Taekwon-Do, our way of moving, is unique, but it turns out that we are quite in sync, and I suspect there are many more of us who in some ways consider ourselves “rogue,” only to constantly find ourselves not as original as we might have thought.

In short, ITF Taekwon-Do as a general style is still changing. I don't think it will ever become a fully soft-style in the sense of Aikido or Tai-Chi, but it has also moved away from its hard-style origins. Under the leadership of the different ITF organizations I guess they will attempt to systematize it, and prevent it from changing, possibly all in an attempt to keep it “authentic” in the way General Choi left it upon his death, but such attempts, I believe will not be successful. I believe that it will continue to evolve; however it is a directed evolution, based on the Theory of Power, Training Secrets and other principles and guidelines already found in the system.

24 October 2014

Re-Unification Through Taekwon-Do

The dream of re-unifying North and South Korea is slowly fading away. In the past when there were still many families that were separated by the arbitrary division line that was set up after the Korean War, a strong drive still existed among the Korean populace towards unification. But now, decades later, the majority of the relatives who were separated have passed away. Also, after decades of separation, the two Koreas have now also separated culturally. At first one could really have talked about "one Korea", as the common people did indeed share the same culture and values. But after years of either Democratic / Capitalist motivations for the one, and years of Communist rhetoric and oppression for the other, we now have generations of young Koreans who have very little in common with those people across the border.

In a recent documentary (part of a series by KBS on re-unification), the idea of Taekwon-Do as a means for connecting Koreans across the political and DMZ divide came up again. This is not the first documentary of this nature that focus on the possible role Taekwon-Do might have to bring Korean people together.  There are two main styles of Taekwon-Do practiced around the world, Kukki / WTF Taekwon-Do and ITF Taekwon-Do. In North and South Korea, however, each emphasize another style. In South Korea the Kukki / WTF style of Taekwon-Do (the one that is also practised in the Olympic Games) is most prominent. You can find a Kukki style Taekwon-Do club in every neighborhood. Trying to find an ITF school is almost impossible. In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, there are only two ITF style schools admits an sea of Kukki / WTF style schools. Conversely, in North Korea it is ITF Taekwon-Do which is state approved and Kukki / WTF style is neglected.

Just as the Korean people who originally shared the same culture but because of separation has now become culturally quite different, the two styles of Taekwon-Do has undergone the same respective evolutions. They are both Taekwon-Do, and have the same roots, but their further development have taken them on different evolutionary paths.

The documentary ends on a high note, with two Taekwon-Do demonstration teams, one from South Korea and one from North Korea, meeting for a shared demonstration in Russia, and having a sort of cultural martial arts exchange. The North Koreans being inspired by the flashy kicks and acrobatic skills of the South Korean Kukki / WTF practitioners, and the South Koreans in awe of the power of the ITF demonstrators from the North. There is even moments of hand-shaking, hugging, and funny pictures. What this event shows, is something that a North Korean defector now living in South Korea recently strongly asserted in an essay "Beyond Blood and Bloody Relations"--the idea of re-unification must face the fact that there are indeed two separate Korean nations.

As long as Koreans insist that they are one--rather than two cultures--there can never be the type of cultural exchange necessary to form relations and understanding. And maybe such Taekwon-Do gatherings of shared demonstrations by two different Taekwon-Do styles could indeed provide an example that may lead towards mutual respect and understanding. Only then can one even consider talking about re-unification.

Below is the the ITF Taekwon-Do pattern Tong-Il, which means "Reunification" and symbolizes the hope of a unified Korea. This is the final pattern in the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum.

06 October 2014

Philip de Vos Promoted to 3rd Dan by Grandmaster Hwang

Mr Philip demonstrating technique for Grandmaster Hwang
during a recent seminar in South Africa.

I'm very happy and proud to announce that Instructor Philip de Vos was recently promoted to 3rd Dan by Grandmaster Hwang Kwang Sung (K-IX-01).

Mr. De Vos, the instructor of the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Dojang, also competed at the South African National ITF Championships over the weekend in Port Elizabeth. He won gold for Senior Male Power Breaking, and a silver medal for 2nd Dan Patterns.

It is my honour to congratulate Instructor Philip on his promotion as well as his excellent performance at the national championships.

Totally Tae Kwon Do

In the last two issues of Totally Tae Kwon Do Magazine two of my essays on the Value of the ITF Patterns were published.

In Issue #67 I argued that the primary value of the patterns is not dallyeon (p. 71-75). This is not to say that the ITF patterns cannot be great exercise. Even after just doing Chon-Ji Tul once I can feel a light sweat coming on, so indeed doing the patterns can be a workout; however, my point is that they should not be done in place of actual dallyeon and one should not think that their true value is for the purpose of aerobic or strength training.

In the essay published in Issue #67 I emphasize the very important conditioning of relaxation that occurs in the ITF patterns by means of the first phase of the three-phased sine wave motion (p. 81-85). The patterns instill the habit of initiating each movement from a state of deliberate relaxation--ensuring that agonist muscles are not hindered by antagonist muscles during movements. The hope is that this overt habit will carry a sense of relaxation into the rest of the system.

07 August 2014

Totally Tae Kwon Do

After a special personal request from the editor of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine I committed to submit more regular articles again. The reason I have been so "quiet" in Totally Tae Kwon Do is the same reason I have been so "quiet" here; namely, my PhD-studies is rather taxing, so that I'm not really in the mood for extra writing in me free time. Be that as it may, I decided to rework some of my blog posts into articles for the magazine.

In Issue #65 of Totally Tae Kwon Do you can read my short essay on "How Old Was Ahn Joong-Gun?", which is based on a post I wrote in May. And starting in Issue #66 I began a series on what I understand the value of the ITF patterns to be. This series is based on my "Exposition on the Value of the Patterns in the ITF Pedagogy", but reworked for the printed page with some amendments. The first installment is titled "The Value of the ITF Patterns: Poetic Containers of Philosophy, History, and Culture."

06 August 2014

Congratulations (Again!)

Jodi Siecker, Instructor Philip de Vos, Hatting Davel
The Potchefstroom Soo Shim Kwan dojang brought home various medals again, after competing at the Gauteng North & Northern Provinces Championship in July.

Instructor Philip de Vos won gold in senior male advanced patterns, as well as a bronze medal in the senior male advanced power breaking division. Jodi Siecker also won medals in patterns and power breaking, getting silver and gold respectively in the senior female Intermediate/Novice divisions. Hatting Davel won another gold for the Potchefstroom Soo Shim Kwan Dojang in the senior male novice division.

Congratulations to you all!

30 June 2014


Jodi and Instructor Philip
We would like to congratulate Instructor Philip de Vos and Jodi Siecker on winning two medals each, during the recent ATC Invitational Tournament in Pretoria. Bsbnim Philip, who is the instructor at the main Soo Shim Kwan dojang in Potchefstroom won gold in 2nd Dan patterns and silver in power breaking; and Jodi won gold for power breaking and silver in novice patterns. Thank you for representing the Soo Shim Kwan in such a brilliant manner. You make us proud!

13 June 2014

Developing a Sensitivity to Ki

I was recently having a conversation with my friend Dr John Johnson about a book we have both read, Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts by Kenji Tokitsu. I then remembered that I had written an article for Issue #17 of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine which was inspired by this book. Since I have not posted it here on my blog, and since I don't generally write about the concept of Ki, I've decided to re-post it here.

Developing a Sensitivity to Ki in Taekwon-Do

By Sanko Lewis

While reading Kenji Tokitsu’s Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts (2003) I was wondering how his ideas, which focuses mostly on the art of Kendo, would translate to Taekwon-Do. This essay will contemplate methods for developing sensitivity to Ki in ITF Taekwon-Do, based on some ideas put forward by Tokitsu and some of my own reflections. Although it is more accurately pronounced as “Gi” [기] in Korean, in this essay I will continue to use the term “Ki,” as it is most commonly transcribed into English.

An essay on Ki in the martial arts is founded on some presuppositions. The first, of course, is that Ki exists. Since the purpose of this essay is not to prove the reality of Ki, let’s assume for the sake of the argument that it does in fact exist. A simplistic definition of Ki is that it is a type of energy found in animate things and to a lesser degree also in inanimate things. In people it is sometimes equated with the body’s nervous system which relies on electric impulses to relay messages. It is furthermore connected with a person’s will or intention. Most Oriental martial arts concur on its existence. Another assumption, which we will also accept as true for now, is that Ki can be sensed. A person that takes the time to practice certain skills can actually acquire sensitivity to Ki, not only to the Ki in him or herself but also to the Ki in other people. Such sensitivity can be quite useful for a martial artist for it could warn you of your opponent’s intentions. A third assumption is that it is possible to project Ki beyond yourself. Colloquially we can express it as “giving off a vibe.” Some charismatic people seem to beam an attractive energy, while other people seem to instil in us a sense of uneasiness. Many martial artists believe that they can use their Ki in this way to intimidate their opponents. Lastly, some martial artists believe that it is possible to project one’s Ki into an opponent and cause physical harm. This latter possibility will not be the concern of this essay.

Developing sensitivity to Ki could serve at least two purposes for martial artist. By acquiring sensitivity to Ki, especially the Ki of other people, a martial artist can increase his defensive capability. Since it is believed that a person’s Ki telegraphs his movements, if you are able to hone into your opponent’s Ki, you could “feel” your opponent’s intention. This means that it is possible to sense what your opponent will do a fraction of a second before he or she actually does it. With such foreknowledge you are better equipped to defend against an attack as well as better prepared to set up a counter attack. At the same time, a person trained in Ki is capable of projecting his or her Ki to his or her opponent. By doing this one is able to instil in your opponent a sense of uneasiness, even fear. In so doing you can psychologically dominate the combative encounter. It is believed that the real fight occurs in the mind, so if you win over your opponent’s mind you have in essence already won the fight. Tokutsu explains that “in order to conquer physically, it is necessary to first conquer the mind . . .” (32).

In Ki and the Way of the Martial Arts Tokutsu elucidates how these two purposes are applicable in Kendo. Kendo is a Japanese combat sport using a bamboo sword called a shinai. The Kendoka (Kendo practitioners) are dressed in safety armour. Strikes are only allowed to a handful of specific areas on the opponent’s body. Striking is usually accompanied with a loud shout, known as the kiai. (The Korean term for kiai is gihap [기합] and literally means a “concentration of Ki.”) Success in Kendo often goes hand in hand with feint attacks. “For the feint to succeed, your opponent has to confuse it with a movement of actual attack,” and “if the feint succeeds, it is because your gesture, as minimal as it may have been, has succeeded in troubling the mind of your opponent,” explains Tokutsu (32, 33). At advanced level, Kendoka are less likely to demonstrate any outward feints. The advanced level practitioner attempts to “cause a movement in the mind of [his or her] opponent without producing any outward sign” (33). In the place of outward feints, the advanced level Kendoka disturbs the Ki of his or her opponent by projecting his own Ki onto the opponent. It is for this reason that most people actually find Kendo quite boring to watch. The two advanced level practitioners may stand facing each other, their shinai crossed at the tip only revealing minute motions for extended periods of time with no dramatic movements at all. Then suddenly there will be a flurry of movement, some screaming, and a point scored. While no overt action was visible during their initial stillness, a big battle was actually occurring in the minds of the two opponents. They were sensing each other’s intentions, intimidating each other, fighting a battle of Ki. “The most important combat takes place in this not particularly dynamic-looking exchange,” says Tokutsu (35). Only at the moment when the Ki of one Kendoka overwhelmed or disturbed the Ki of the other, did the first land his attack. Tokutsu quotes the famous Kendo proverb: “Do not win after having struck, but strike after having won.”

In the sport of WTF Taekwon-Do sparring we find an unarmed counterpart to Kendo. When novice players spar each other their match is much more dynamic than when advanced players spar. Novice players seem to kick wildly and powerfully, often shouting ceaselessly. A bout between experienced WTF players looks quite different. The two opponents will face each other in a tension filled silence. Like the little movements of the shinai tips in the Kendo match, so the advanced level WTF competitors move only a little; bouncing in their knees or demonstrating careful, almost nervous, footwork. The non-WTF onlooker looks at the match with frustration as nothing seems to happen. Just little nervous jolts in the players’ bodies as each anticipate the movement of the other. Then suddenly a flurry of powerful kicks and counter-kicks are exchanged with deafening gihaps. Like with Kendo, in advanced level WTF Taekwon-Do the real combat takes place during the time before the exchange of physical attacks occur. WTF has mastered the art of counter-attack so a foolish opening attack is sure to lose you a point. Instead the player has to make feints, and intimidate his opponent, disturb his Ki, to create an opening. Only then dares he attack.

Both Kendo fencing and WTF Taekwon-Do sparring are ideally set up for developing sensitivity to Ki. First, both Kendo and WTF Taekwon-Do uses protective armour. The armour takes away some of the fear the practitioner may have of being hit and in so doing helps the practitioners to be more relaxed. Being relaxed is crucial to sensing Ki. Seeing as the practitioner is not constantly in a “closed” defensive posture, he or she may be more “open” to experience Ki. Second, both Kendo and WTF Taekwon-Do have a very limited target area. Since practitioners need not worry about too many targets on their person being attacked and since the limited target areas also narrow down the scope of possible attacks from one’s opponent, practitioners can spend more psychological energy elsewhere. This freed up psychological energy can be used to anticipate the opponent’s intention instead. Third, the initial space between the practitioners is also big enough for them to feel the energy between them better. Tokitsu suggests that in a martial art like Judo where there is no initial separation of physical contact, there is hardly any opportunity to “grasp the intention of your adversary across the space that separates you” (40). Similarly, in full contact Karate or ITF Taekwon-Do sparring matches “the combatants anticipate violent physical contact from the start, and this tends to galvanize ki inside the body and prevent its diffusion outward. Therefore the possibility of opening to the sensation of ki is limited” (41). It is not that ITF Taekwon-Do cannot develop sensitivity to Ki in sparring; in fact, one often sees the same kind of sensitivity in ITF Taekwon-Do among the elite competitors who also seem to “wait” more during sparring bouts. However, in WTF Taekwon-Do such “waiting” and anticipation of one’s opponent’s movements are practically expected, while in ITF Taekwon-Do’s sport sparring “waiting” is often reprimanded by centre referees giving warnings to “inactive” fighters. In order to make ITF Taekwon-Do more spectator friendly authorities are forcing competitors to be more active in their sparring. One of the reasons WTF Taekwon-Do has come under review by the Olympic Games Committee is because it is not spectator friendly enough—there’s not enough visible action. Those periods of inactivity are too boring for spectators that do not comprehend the mental battle happening before the physical battle occurs.

As an ITF practitioner I am quite interested in how such Ki sensitivity can be achieved in ITF Taekwon-Do. Following I will discuss four possibilities: breathing and stretching exercises, patterns, step-sparring, and focussed free sparring.

ITF Taekwon-Do focuses a lot on its “short sharp breath” used with fundamental technique training. While this way of breathing has many valuable functions, it is not the type of breathing typically employed for Ki training. Breathing exercises used for Ki training tend to be more relaxed and smoother. There are different systems known for Ki development, the most famous is probably Qigong (the Korean is Gigong or Hoheup Jojeol; the latter literally means “controlled breathing”). Qigong exercises involve controlled breathing usually focussed on energising the body with Ki. The most famous Qigong set is the Baduajin, known in English as the “Eight Section Brocade” or “Eight Silken Movements.” The movements, which originated in China c. 1150-1300, are yogic stretching and breathing exercises reputed to increase Ki with a focus on health improvement. While I believe Qigong exercises like the Baduajin, which I practise on occasion, to be a good method for developing Ki, Qigong training is not without risk. There have been cases of psychosis caused by Qigong training (usually Qigong meditation), especially among people with a predisposition to mental disease. If meditation is followed as prescribed in the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia, not involving a “total divorce from the world, like a dead body, but rather an active moment to reflect on our past mistakes in silence and in the privacy of our thoughts, and through penitence, to continue our self-improvement toward becoming better men and women” (Volume 1, p. 58), then I doubt it could be harmful. A person need not become a serious Qigong practitioner to enjoy the simple benefits of stretching and controlled breathing. When emphasis is put on breathing and relaxation, some of the typical static stretching exercises performed before or after a Taekwon-Do session can be adapted for Ki training. Emphasis need merely be placed on relaxed, controlled abdominal breathing, with practitioners becoming aware of the sensations in their body while stretching and breathing properly. This will result in a natural flow of Ki and may cause a natural awareness of Ki to develop.

Patterns are also a method for developing sensitivity to Ki. The soft style martial art Tai Ch’i Chuan (Tae Geuk Kwon in Korean) is basically Qigong in continuous motion; Tai Ch’i Chuan is sometimes referred to as meditation in motion. While I personally am yet to sense Ki through patterns (I’ve felt it doing stretching and Baduajin), some family and friends have confessed becoming aware of Ki while training the patterns. My brother, whom is also an ITF practitioner, has shared with me that he experienced a sensation of energy flowing from him, especially in his hands, sometimes while doing patterns. A friend, whom has black belts in ITF, WTF and Hapkido, also admitted to Ki-sensations from time to time when practising the ITF patterns. While I have not yet experienced Ki during pattern training, I can understand why the ITF patterns are quite suited for it. Patterns performed in other systems of Taekwon-Do (WTF and other Chang-Hon systems) are usually performed with much tension and muscular power. Any objective viewer would immediately identify them as representative of hard style martial arts. ITF Taekwon-Do, however, has become much more relaxed because of its iconic (and often misunderstood) sine wave principle. The sine wave motion, when performed correctly, requires that the practitioner be completely relaxed, except at the moment of impact. The tempo of ITF Taekwon-Do patterns have also slowed down over the years. With a few exceptions, the tempo is generally never rushed. ITF Taekwon-Do has also moved away from the stocky Karate motions of its past. The preliminary motions in ITF Taekwon-Do have become more circular contributing to more fluidity in technique. In this sense, patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do have moved towards a more soft style approach with normally more relaxed and fluid movements, and a slowed down tempo. This way of movement is more conducive to Ki training.

While breathing and stretching exercises and patterns can help you become aware of Ki in yourself, it does little to hone your skills for sensing the Ki in other people. One part of Taekwon-Do training that I believe can help with developing sensitivity to the Ki (or intention) of one’s opponent is prearranged sparring. Prearranged sparring usually involves two practitioners practising together. The appointed attacker attacks with a set number of movements. Often the defender knows exactly how the attacker will attack. For instance, Three Step Sparring usually involves that the attacker steps forward with three walking stance punches. The defender is then required to defend against these set attacks by blocking each punch and finishing the sequence with a counter attack. Or Two Step Sparring may involve two attacks, likely a hand attack first, followed by a foot attack second. The defender blocks the two attacks and finishes the exercise with a counter attack. The main purpose of prearranged sparring is to acquaint the practitioner with appropriate angles and distances for various offensive and defensive manoeuvres. It also gives the defender the opportunity to try out a variety of different defensive and offensive manoeuvres. If the defender knows exactly what the attacker will do, prearranged sparring will add little for Ki development; however, a slight modification can change prearranged sparring into excellent reaction and Ki-sensitivity exercises. If the prearranged sparring is performed with the number of attacks known (be it Three Steps, Two Steps, or One Step), but the type of attacks are unknown, the exercise suddenly requires the defender to anticipate how his partner will attack. This makes the exercise similar to a real sparring match in that the practitioner knows that an attack is coming, but does not know in what form it will come. The defender is required to act reflexively. The novice practitioner often waits to see what attack is coming; advanced practitioner relies less on sight and more on an intuitive feeling—a sensitivity to their partner’s intention or Ki.

Free sparring, if approached with Ki training in mind, is also applicable for developing sensitivity to Ki. When the sparring session is focussed not on kickboxing-like brawling, not on overwhelming the opponent with a barrage of attacks, but rather on fewer focussed techniques, then we move to sparring more geared to Ki sensitivity development. Of course, this type of free sparring is actually what we see with advanced level ITF Taekwon-Do competitors—techniques are focussed and deliberate; the game is as much psychological as it is physical; the competitors react to attacks in an intuitive way, as if they anticipated the intend of their opponents. One way to encourage this type of sparring is to practise with light contact, or alternatively to don protective armour. This may help practitioners to be more relaxed. Point sparring, instead of continuous sparring, can also instil in practitioners a sense of more reflexive sparring, rather than brawling. A possible argument against such training for Ki sensitivity is that it does not reflect real life; that fighting in real life is closer to the kickboxing brawl than the nervous waiting one sees in WTF sparring. That is probably true. However, real life combat often happens unexpectedly or many times opponents in street fights would square off, do some posturing and partake in mutual name calling before one suddenly swings the first punch. A person practised in sensing the intentions of other people may actually have an advantage in these situations. Furthermore, someone adept at projecting his or her own Ki can send a clear message to any would be opponents that you will not be an easy pushover, showing them an inexplicable and intimidating calm strength. Keep in mind that for the ITF practitioner these varied sparring exercises functions merely as training tools with specific purposes in mind, and should not replace conventional sparring or proper self-defence practise. 

Developing sensitivity to Ki is certainly useful; however, it is not the be all and end all of a martial arts training regime. I once had a discussion with an MMA instructor who criticised traditional martial arts’ use of training methods such as patterns and prearranged sparring. His argument was that training in these is useless because they contribute little to real fighting. What he failed to realise was that training in patterns and prearranged sparring is not intended to precisely mimic “real fights.” Instead these exercises are abstractions of the combative encounter, zoomed in on very specific points and practising those alone in order to hone specific skills. The purpose of prearranged sparring is to acquaint the practitioner with angles and distances specifically, not to teach fighting in general. This MMA instructor was blind to see that in his own system he does similar things, like jumping rope and shadowboxing. Apart from the fitness, one of the functions of jumping rope is that it teaches footwork; it is not intended to teach fighting, although it may improve one’s fighting ability. Shadow boxing is similar to pattern training. My encounter with this MMA instructor did make one point clear, that we should not confuse these exercises with real fighting. The same goes for Ki sensitivity training. Training focussed on developing sensitivity to Ki is useful, but ought not to be the only focus in martial art training. On the other hand, neglecting it may leave your martial art experience less than it could be as it may enhance both your defensive and offensive capabilities.

Richard Strozzi Heckler is a doctor in psychology and also an Aikido practitioner. In his book The Anatomy of Change: East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy, Heckler talks about, what he calls, “contact”—what I have revered to as “sensitivity to Ki.” Heckler affirms that by “training the perceptive and intuitive aspects of the body, we can ‘read’ or sense [Ki]. This type of perception is like that of the experienced sailor who can ‘read’ the conditions of the sea. There is nothing particularly mystical or magical about what he can see and sense; it is simply a matter of experience . . . Through certain practices, especially in the movement and contemplative arts, this type of perception can be developed so that sensing qualities of [Ki] becomes second nature” (120). In a sense, this quote summarises the point of this essay, which is that attaining sensitivity to Ki is indeed possible through training in certain practices. I’ve suggested breathing and stretching exercises, pattern training, adapted step-sparring and focussed free sparring. Since these practises are already part of the typical Taekwon-dojang, they can easily be adjusted to also enhance the development of Ki sensitivity.

Choi, Honghi. ITF Encyclopedia. Volume 1.
Heckler, Richard Strozzi. 1984. The Anatomy of Change: East/West Approaches to Body/Mind Therapy. Boulder: Shambhala.
Tokitsu, Kenji (translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn). 2003. Ki and the Way to the Martial Arts. Boston: Shambhala.