01 April 2014

Some Core Muscle Strengthening Exercises

The question of doing the "plank" exercise recently came up and I was quick to acknowledge that I do indeed do this exercise, including a number of other core muscle exercises. I believe that core strengthening exercises are crucial for martial artists as it improves your anatomical structure and posture, support the spine and therefor may reduce back injuries, and generally improves balance. Movements of the limbs are most efficient when the core is strong and stable. Apart from the value of improved balance, in Taekwon-Do the effective employment of the muscles around the abdomen and waist in power generation cannot be understated, and core muscle strengthening definitely helps towards this. On a personal note, I injured my back many years ago and I find that core muscle exercises together with back stretching and good sleeping posture helps to relieve the occasional onset of back ache.

So here are some of the core muscle exercises I do. Start by keeping each position for 30 seconds and as you get stronger, work your way up to a minute or two minutes. You may fall over in many of these postures, so make sure your environment is clear of objects that may cause injury were you to fall on them.

Plank (with variations)

The plank is one of the most popular core muscle exercises. It is basically a variation of the push-up position, but instead of doing actual push-ups, just go halfway and keep it there. Try to keep your body in a straight light -- don't lift your pelvis up, neither let it drop towards the floor. You may keep your hands shoulder width apart, or closer (as in the picture) to get variation in the exercise.

Once you feel comfortable with the regular plank position, have your feet and hands shoulder width apart and then lift one hand off the floor. Keep it in the air for 30 seconds, then alternate. Next move onto the superman plank. For this exercise lift one foot and the hand on the opposite side of the floor. For instance, raise your left leg and right arm, so that you balance on your right foot and left hand. Keep for 30 seconds and alternate.

An easier superman plank keeps one knee on the floor, rather than just the foot.

Side Plank (with variations)

For the side plank, position yourself on your side and lift your body off the floor, balancing on your fore arm and side of your foot. Try to keep your body in a straight line. Do not let your waist drop towards the floor. As you improve in strength and balance, raise yourself onto the palm of your hand.

When your balance and strength have improved adequately, try the starfish side plank as in the picture below, by raising your top foot and hand towards the ceiling.

For an extra challenge, you can try the starfish side plank with hamstring stretch as in the picture below.

 V-Press Hold

For the V-Press, balance on your buttocks, and lift your feet off the floor. Try to keep your back straight, so that your back and thighs form a "V"-shape. Keep your arms and lower legs parallel to the floor.

As your balance and strength improve you can increase the difficulty of the V-press by straightening your legs and arms.

As you become adept at these exercises you are likely to notice a general improvement in your balance. You may also notice how other exercises seem much easier -- for instance you may find that you can do more sit-ups and crunches and push-ups and even some kicks may seem easier.

13 February 2014

Steven Capener

There are not that many non-Koreans who have come to Korea to formally study Taekwon-Do academically. Since I am currently pursuing a PhD in martial arts philosophy here in Korea, I do feel a sense of deeper kinship with other non-Koreans that have or is currently doing the same. There are very few of us.

Dr Steven Capener might very well be the first foreigner to have come to Korea to live here long term, and formally study Taekwon-Do and receive a PhD in the field. He got his doctorate degree at Seoul National University in Sports Philosophy, and researched the modernization of martial arts with focus on Taekwon-Do. He has also written one of the best essays, in my opinion, on the technical philosophy of Taekwon-Do sparring. His discussion of the Principle of Full and Empty Space, based in the Taoist idea of opposites, has greatly affected how I understand Taekwon-Do as well. I have shared a good chunk of his essay on my blog before: "The Do: The Principle of Full and Empty Space". In the interview below, Dr Capener also explains this concept with the help of demonstrators. (You can watch it from around 32:10 in the YouTube video.)

Dr Capener practises the martial sport version of Taekwon-Do, known as WTF (Kukkiwon-syllabus). As someone who have been active in WTF administration for many years, and particularly as someone who was an WTF athlete at a professional level, he has keen insight into how the style has changed, and he discusses some of the problems that is part of the sport at present. (You can see this part of the interview at around 37:15.)

It is definitely an interview worth watching for Taekwon-Do enthusiasts regardless whether you are an WTF-stylist or not. It is seldom that foreigners can get the opportunity to get a glimpse into Taekwon-Do as it is practised in (South) Korea.

28 January 2014

Tao / 'Do' and War

This year I'll be starting my dissertation in martial arts philosophy as part of my doctoral program requirements. I'm planning to write on some of the paradoxes in martial arts and the Oriental philosophies they borrow from. Hence I'm starting to reread some of my notes. This reminded me of an article I wrote for the March 2012 issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #34). The article was loosely based on some notes I made while traveling in Hong Kong in January of that year, but I never posted the whole article here, so I decided to do so now.


'Do' and War

By Sanko Lewis

Taoism, sometimes also written in English as Daoism, is one of the chief Oriental philosophies. The Tao or 'Do', as it is referred to in Korean, is the essence or natural order of things. 'Do' is often translated as “Way” (i.e. the Way of Nature and Heaven), or “Principle” (i.e. the Law of the Universe). Adherents of Taoism attempt to live in harmony with Nature and Heaven; in other words, according to the correct 'Way'.

The Chinese pictogram denoting the Tao / Do.

Principles of Taoism are also found in the Oriental martial arts. Consider how many martial arts actually contain “Do” as part of their name: Aikido, Hapkido, Jeet Kune Do, Judo, Tang Soo Do, and of course Taekwon-Do, to name just the obvious ones. This “Do”-suffix is a rather recent phenomenon in the names of martial arts. Although a recent practise, it does not take away from the fact that principles of the 'Do' are central to Oriental martial arts. Interestingly, while many martial arts, i.e. the study of war arts, are philosophically based on Taoism, Taoism looks with disfavour on war, and by implication looks with disfavour upon fighting. It is therefore well worth it to look into the Taoist view of fighting, battle and warfare and thereby consider if current views of fighting in styles like Taekwon-Do is in harmony with its underlying 'Do'-philosophy.

A painting of the Chinese philosopher
Laozi / Lao Tzu riding an ox,
who according to legend is the
author of the Tao Te Ching.
(Image Source)
The chief Taoist text is the Tao Te Ching, also known as the Laozi. According to the Laozi, war is brought on by human desire. Chapter 46 of the Laozi teaches:

There is no crime greater than having too many desires; There is no disaster greater than not being content; There is no misfortune greater than being covetous.

It is desire—not being satisfied—that causes war. Such desire is equated by the Laozi as cause for disasters and calamities. Hans-Goerg Moeller, in his introduction to the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching explains: “The Laozi does not make any rhetorical attempts to adorn warfare at all . . . war is primarily seen as a social disaster and, consequently, there are two very simple and practical attitudes that it advises. First: Avoid it. Second, if you cannot avoid it, win it with the least possible damage to yourself” (84).

War, and even victory in war, is not viewed favourably in Taoist thinking. If one were to follow the 'Do', one would avoid war at all cost, for war is a sign of failure to stay within the 'Do'. When a society has moved from a state of harmony, tranquility, and being in the will of “Nature and Heaven”, to a state of war, turmoil, and against “Nature and Heaven,” it has already failed to practise 'Do'. Within Taoist thought war is equated with disharmony—things being out of control, the orderly becoming disorderly, messy. War then, is a reactive attempt to clean up the mess. The ideal is not winning the war; the ideal is not having the situation get out of control—“messy”—in the first place. In Chapter 31 the Laozi says:

When victorious in war, one should observe the rites of mourning. 

Unlike other world views that may see war as a conflict between the righteous and unrighteous, the good guys versus the bad guys, the Laozi makes no such distinction. War is something to be mourned.  War is a disaster: “As a social disaster, war in the Laozi is also not a matter of collective pride,” (Moeller, 84) as is often the case in Western or Modern views of war. War, and by association fighting—even if you win, is nothing to be proud of. There is therefore no “heroism” in the 'Do'. Chapter 31 of the Laozi says:

There is no glory in victory, and to glorify it despite this is to exult the killing of men. One who exults in the killing of men will never have his way in the empire.

However, Taoist thought is not pacifistic. The legendary text on war strategy, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, is after all considered to be based on Taoist strategies. War, like other disasters, do occur, so the Laozi states in Chapter 80:

Let there be militia and weapons, but people do not use them. 

Taoist thought thus allows for the preparation for war, for having a defence force, but will try at all cost not to use them. The Laozi explains in Chapter 31:

Arms [weapons] are the instruments of ill omen, not of gentlemen. When one is compelled to use them, it is best to do so without relish.

When war is unavoidable the Taoist will engage in defensive, and level-headed, warfare. Chapter 68 says:

One who excels as a warrior does not appear formidable; One who excels in fighting is never roused in anger; One who excels in defeating his enemy does not join issue [do not engage the enemies].

Traditional martial arts often highlight the importance of avoiding conflict, of not getting into a fight; i.e. they “do not engage the enemies.” Chapter 69 teaches:

The strategists have a saying: “I dare not play the host but play the guest; I dare not advance an inch but retreat a foot instead.” . . . There is no disaster greater than taking on an enemy to easily. 

This may seem paradoxical as the thing practised, namely the art of fighting (martial arts), is avoided. A professional musician would not practise a musical instrument with the aim of never doing a musical recital; similarly, an artist would not practise painting with no ambition of one day having an art exhibit. Yet the traditional martial arts seem to suggest just this—the martial artist is told to practise, practise diligently, but to try and avoid fighting at all cost, to avoid the thing practised for. From a Western world view this is quite nonsensical. Not so, when viewed from a Taoist world view. The way of the 'Do' is the way of harmony. Going to war is viewed as something that occurs when things have gone wrong. For the 'Do', disharmony is a flaw in the system, a mistake in what ought to be a harmonious system.

"Paramedics do not train in their discipline with the
hope that people will get injured"
(Image Source)
Practise in the martial arts, is therefore, similar to practise in paramedics. Paramedics do not train in their discipline with the hope that people will get injured, but when an injury occurs they try to return the injured person to a state of healing. Studying paramedics is not a wish for injury, but a preparedness for when an injury occurs. In a similar way, the traditional martial artist do not practise martial arts with the hope of fighting, but when violent disharmony occurs, the martial artist attempts a form of rapid “damage control.” War, and by implication fighting, is always viewed as “social disaster,” as something that needs to be urgently remedied, cleaned up; the aim is not winning, but fixing the problem—returning society to a state of harmony with each other and with “Nature and Heaven.” Fighting is therefore avoided where possible. The Taoist martial artist “wins by mastering the 'efficacy of not fighting'” (Moeller, 80).

This does not mean that the Taoist view is against winning in battle. While fighting is to be avoided, the 'Do' has little praise for failure. To be in the 'Do', means to be effective. Efficacy is achieved when one acts in harmony with the 'Do', which is at the core of Taoist thought. Fighting and even winning a fight is not praised in Taoist thinking, but if you are going to fight, win, since winning is efficient and efficacy is part of the 'Do'.

Now compare the negative view of Taoist thought regarding war and fighting with the current prevalent view espoused by sport combat, be it Taekwon-Do tournaments, MMA competitions and UFC, or the wars going on in the world at present. Although sport, and by implication tournaments, may have some benefits, they more often than not cultivate desire [to have victory and win over someone else]; such desire is contrary to the Taoist aim for harmony, rather than disharmony. Martial arts that claim to be based on principles of the 'Do' may need to take inventory from time to time, to see if what they are teaching are still principles of ultimately achieving harmony; in order to, as the Taekwon-Do Oath proclaims, “build a more peaceful world.” Undoubtedly, world leaders that promulgate war may also benefit from a study in ancient philosophies. As for strategy, the 'Do' is all about achieving harmony—engaging the enemy is avoided as far as possible; however, when conflict cannot be avoided, swift and effective victory is advocated. This, too, is something that ought to be studied by students of martial arts based on the 'Do'.


Hans-George Moeller, 2006. The Philosophy of the Daodejing. Columbia University Press.
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching.

21 January 2014

Twenty Years Later

This photo dates from about 15 years ago.
Me (right) and Boosabeom Yolandi Müller.
(Besides me, Bsbnim Yolandi was the first person in the
Soo Shim Kwan group to get a black belt and even though she
doesn't formally practice anymore, every time we speak on the
phone she still tells me how she does patterns by herself.
Once a martial artist, always a martial artist.)

This year is my 20th year of doing Taekwon-Do. That is more than half my life that I have devoted to Taekwon-Do and the martial arts. During this time hardly a week has gone by that I have not trained two or three times per week, and hardly a day has gone by that I have not thought about martial arts. Calling myself a martial artist, a moodo-in, a Taekwondo-in, feels very fitting. It is a core part of my identity, of how I see myself.

Contemplating these thoughts made me think back about a conversation I had with one of my friends and students last year. He had spent some time in the States training at another ITF gym where the instructor made some demeaning remarks. While such remarks were humiliating to my friend, it was also rather insulting to me. Among other things the instructed insinuated that my student was not worthy of his black belt and not truly a martial artist, he also suggested that my friend's self-defence was not on par. The instructor also admitted to seeing little use for pattern training. This caused my friend to go through lots of self-doubt and re-evaluation—he was seriously thinking about quitting the martial arts, something he had only taken up later in life and had now done for about five years. We had some long talks. Below are some of my comments with regards to what that other instructor said, which I also think ties in with us long term martial artists.

One thing the instructor said was that if you are not a full time martial artist, you are fooling yourself and wasting your time. I thought this quite narrow-minded. Very few people have the luxury of being full time martial artists. The only people that can do it are people who have made it their career. In other words, only he and other career martial arts instructors—who teach martial arts for a living—are authentic martial artists. It only follows that all other people who practice martial arts but who have other careers are just pretending—of course this includes his own students. That's a little hypocritical if you ask me. If he really feels so strongly about it, he should stop teaching Taekwon-Do to anybody that has not made it their career choice also, rather than accusing them of not being true martial artists. According to his mindset, only people living the lifestyle of Shaolin monks can honestly be called full time martial artists. Ironically, those Shaolin monks are not full time martial artists. That is not the core of who they are. Rather they are full time Shaolin Buddhists, for who the primary goal is spiritual enlightenment.

With regards to self-defence. Taekwon-Do is not the best way to defend yourself against an attacker. The best, fastest way to defend against someone trying to take your life is to kill them first, preferably with a gun. And since most serious violent crimes occur with the attacker wielding a weapon, probably a gun, as an unarmed person you are at a terrible disadvantage even with all your martial art skills. No amount of martial art training can save you from a maniac with a gun standing a proper distance from you. To put it simply, martial arts cannot defend against guns from a distance. If anything, the film The Last Samurai had this point. Even the best samurai who trained most of their life could not overcome the rifle. This means that martial art training for self-defence purposes prepares one for only a small margin of possible self-defence situations—that area where someone is actually trying to attack you without the use of a gun (or they are standing so close to you that you can actually reach the gun). The idea that Taekwon-Do is preparing you for self-defence is only valid for this small margin in possible attacks. Claiming therefore that we are all pretending, applies to him too. He is just as much pretending as the rest of us, because he is only seriously training for that small margin of self-defence situation where actual close-quarter-combat is of any use. (Unless, of course, he is also spending much of his day at the shooting range, in which case we must ask if he is really a full time martial artist—according to his understanding of the term—or rather a full time marksman instead.)

Secondly, he is utterly limiting the value and function of the martial arts as a discipline. For him, it is all about combat. While combat is a function of martial arts training, it is not the only function. If it is just about combat, then one can train in those systems that do not claim to be martial arts, for instance Krav Maga or kickboxing—the former being a purely military close quarter combat system and the latter a sport. Neither of these claim to be martial arts. What differentiates a martial art from mere fighting is that it is based on certain ideals, certain philosophies (that transcend mere fighting), certain ascetics, and aesthetics. It also contributes to your general well-being: body and mind (and possibly spirit, according to some martial art proponents).

Yes, if your only reason for training is to practise combat, then I would say that you are just pretending and that you are wasting your time doing a martial art that is concerned with more than just hurting people. Rather go buy a gun and enrol at a shooting range for target practise and join a military combat focussed system.

However, the martial arts are much more diverse. For some people it is just a recreation and there is nothing wrong with that. There is no reason to look down on martial arts hobbyists. Many people's great passions are their hobbies, the things they get excited about; they only do their “day jobs” to pay the bills. There was a time that teaching martial arts was a major means of my income. Currently my job is as a university lecturer, teaching literature. Does that mean that I'm any less a martial artist now that I get money for teaching at a university? I don't think so.

The martial arts is a passion for me, something I have done for 20 years. I can imagine myself not teaching at a university, but I can never imagine myself not doing martial arts. This hasn't changed even though I have changed “careers”, even though other hobbies and interests have come and gone.

A photo from 2010
I think it is for the very reason that martial arts is more than just how to hurt people, that I've been able to enjoy it for so long. During this 20 years, my focus in the martial arts has shifted many times. Sometimes it was a focus on self-defence (I was a self-defence instructor for quite sometime); sometimes it was on understanding the underlying physical and mechanical principles and how it allows a human being to transfer immense amounts of power into a target; sometimes it was the sport, competing or seeing my students bring back medals from tournaments; sometimes it was the philosophy that underlies Taekwon-Do and the martial arts (still a primary focus); sometimes it was the mental focus, the ability the martial arts have to push your boundaries, or to help you to focus—Zen-like—on the thing at hand, to be in the moment; sometimes it was the health benefits of martial arts which is quite evident when we see many old people that have practised martial arts for decades still being healthy and active into old age; sometimes it is the aesthetics of the human body in motion, the patterns and perfecting them, agility and graceful movements; sometimes it is the discipline, of pushing yourself towards the ideal of perfection and once you mastered one thing you find there is something else waiting for you, another part of you that can improve; sometimes it is the camaraderie and friendship—I have made some of my best friends through the martial arts; sometimes it is the space to work through your issues, a place to unwind, to put every ounce of your stress and anger into every technique you do and getting it all out in a physical manner; sometimes it is just the pure sweat; sometimes it is the Oriental culture from which Taekwon-Do was born, and I can go on and on. Of course, many of these things you can get through other disciplines as well, but the martial arts provides a unique package for all of these. The fact that that instructor neglects patterns is telling me that he has a one sided approach to the martial arts and is missing much of what it can provide and also depriving his students of the grand spectrum that is Taekwon-Do. In my opinion he would be better off just teaching MMA, if he just have a sport fighting interesting, or just teach something like Krav Maga, without any competition, if he has a primary self-defence focus.

My suggestion to my friend was, that if after he had thought about all of this, and came to the conclusion that these things that Taekwon-Do and the martial arts have to offer are really not that appealing to him, or that he could get it from doing other things that he finds more interesting instead (such as playing soccer [fitness, camaraderie] and playing video games [being in the moment and working through your stress by killing fictional enemies]) and that he is not interested in the rest of what martial arts have to offer, then the best might be to quit the martial arts after all. He should rather spend his time on those other things that he has an interest in, rather than do martial arts that provide such a broad spectrum of things—things that can keep one busy for a life time.

A photo from 2012
I've been doing martial arts for 20 years and there is so much more for me to learn and improve in and it stays exciting to me. It's a commitment. Often difficult. But it is part of me. I love it. I don't have illusions. I don't think I am a superman, I don't pretend to have the ability to take on a gang of weapon-wielding thugs by myself, I don't pretend to be able to catch bullets with my teeth or know pressure point strikes that will turn my opponents into statues. I don't think I'll win in the octagon against a UFC athlete that trains six hours a day, while I only train six hours a week. I don't think that my training will one day cause me to levitate or shoot Ki-lazer beams from my finger tips. My view of the martial arts are not fanciful or fantastical. After 20 years I can say that I've witness some amazing, sometimes mind-boggling feats, and that I've also done some things that had caused my students to stand in awe. But it is not magic. It is just diligent, year in and year out, commitment. My accomplishments never happened because of an innate talent—far from it. I'm not a natural athlete, and while my students often tell me that I make it looks so easy, it is not because it came easy to me. It is quite simply that I've been doing this for so long—commit 20 years of your life to something and you'll make it look easy too.

A photo from 2013
(Core-muscles balance training)

Here is what it means to be a Taekwondo-in, a martial artist, for me . . . indomitable spirit. It is okay to fail. It doesn't matter if you don't succeed. Just get back up and get back at it. And if you don't get it right today, try again tomorrow, and again next week, and again next year, and 20 years later I'm still doing Chon-Ji Teul and still learning about movement and relaxation and how to apply the Theory of Power. That's what it means to be a martial artist.

16 October 2013

Power Postures

I focus a lot on posture during my martial arts training and teaching. Taekwon-Do, like Aikido, is very much an upright martial art that puts premium emphasis on good posture. This has primarily to do with Taekwon-Do's focus on balance and power.

I remember very clearly one of my first lessons I had with Master Kim Jong Su. Because I know that I often slack in my posture, especially when I'm tired, I tried hard to keep a good upright posture, yet Master Kim was not satisfied with me just standing nice and straight. "Push out your chest," he said, "look strong, look good". For him it was not merely about standing straight for the sake of good balance, but also looking proud and strong. Keeping in mind that Taekwon-Do's roots are in the Korean military, standing proud and strong makes a lot of sense; imagine soldiers standing on the parade grounds.

Super heroes standing in "Power Postures"

Watching the video below reminded me again of this lesson with Master Kim. In the video Amy Cuddy discusses the physiological effects that "power postures" have on a person. They had people stand in certain postures for two minutes and tested their hormone levels before and after. They found that people who stood in "power postures", for instance standing proudly with your chest out and hands on the hips like Superman or Wonder Woman or standing with your arms raised up in victory - had increased testosterone (the hormone associated with strength, confidence and competitiveness) and decreased cortisone (the hormone associated with stress). In other words, by standing in a "power posture" you literally change your own physiology, becoming more confident, yet calm in a stressful situation. This will not only improve your daily life and interactions with other people (even doing better at job interviews), but may also be advantageous to a combat situation.

ITF Taekwon-Do is constructed almost exclusively of upright postures, most of which can be described as "power postures". My suggestion, as conveyed by Master Kim to me, is that when you train Taekwon-Do, don't merely focus on having good upright posture, but deliberately focus on having "power postures". Expand you chest, let your back smile broadly, and look the world straight in the eye. In every stance, pose and posture, be a super hero. After all, when you recite the Taekwon-Do Oath, you are in fact reflecting the motto of a super hero when you say: "I shall be a champion of freedom and justice. I shall help build a more peaceful world." Now stand like you mean it.

18 September 2013

Cultural Kinaesthetics

I have not been very active on this blog as of late. Much of it has to do with a lack of time and additional energy to devote to it. A reason for this is that as of this year I started working on post-graduate studies. The good news is that my research focus is in the martial arts.

I recently read an article on Hip Hop dance styles and it suggested that my own theories regarding the development of ITF Taekwon-Do and its unique kinaesthetics may indeed be sound.

Lis Engel's article “Body Poetics of Hip Hop Dance Styles in Copenhagen” (2001) is based on earlier theories on body movement, established by Marcel Mauss in his article from 1934 on “The Techniques of the Body”, and adapted to English in 1973 as “Body Techniques.” In this article, Mauss asserts that “The different ways of moving, the body techniques, vary not just between individuals but even more between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions and that different ways of moving mirror cultural ways of thinking.’’ In other words, people of different cultures and subcultures move in unique ways—ways that reflect their thinking. In her groundwork, Lis Engel's also refers to the Danish philosopher Ole Fogh Kirkeby's who argues that a person's movement (“body-techniques”) “whether everyday body movements, sports, or different dance techniques and styles” (Engel 351), is a manifestation of a person's “body-mind-event attunement” (Engel 352). Put differently, people express themselves, or reveal themselves, through their body movements, whether these are normal, everyday movements or other specialized forms of movement like sport or dance. Engel explains that “Each personality, each group, each culture develops a particular rhythm, a special style of movement and ways of relating to the other. It is learned” (352).

The value of this article for me as a scholar of Taekwon-Do is that it provides an example of how to approach the “poetics” or meaning of movement in an academic way. In a similar way as Lis Engel studies the cultural significance of the movements of Hip Hop dances, it is possible to consider the significance of certain martial arts. Based on the theories of Marcel Mauss and Ole Fogh Kirkeby it would be possible to discover culturally significant information from the “body-techniques” (i.e. kinaesthetics) in the different movements in the martial arts. Theoretically, a Chinese martial art such as Tai Chi Chuan, a Korean martial arts such as Taekkyeon and a Japanese martial art such as Karate should all reveal something of the cultures in which they developed. Furthermore, the way individuals may express themselves uniquely within these martial arts may reveal something of their individual personalities as well. This could make for interesting research on the effect of a martial art on an individual's sense of self and sense of the world.


Engel, Lis (2001), “Body Poetics of Hip Hop Dance Styles in Copenhagen”, Dance Chronicle, 24:3,
Kirkeby, Ole Fogh (1997), “Event and Body-Mind: An Outline of a Post-Postmodern Approach to Phenomenology”, Cybernetics & Human Knowing, 4 (3), 1–33.
Mauss, Marcel (1973), “Body Techniques”, Economy and Society, 70–88.

Some of the posts I wrote that are related to the above include:

15 July 2013

Taekwon-Do Grappling: Letter & Reply

Someone recently send me the following email. I decided to post it here, with me reply beneath.


I have a question regarding taekwondo, I will really appreciate your answer on this one :)
My question is whether there is a full and complete grappling curriculum for taekwondo.
By grappling I mean clinch, ground techniques, locks, pins, takedowns etc. Would that be comparable as judo or jujitsu?
Is there any book or encyclopedia that completely and fully demonstrates these techniques?
Thank you in advance.
Looking forward to hearing from you
My best regards


Good day,

Thank you for your question.

I can only speak for ITF (Chang-Hon) style Taekwon-Do, and not for WTF Taekwondo. But WTF Taekwondo, as far as I know, do not have a grappling arsenal.

Regarding ITF, grappling style techniques are covered in two parts in ITF Taekwon-Do: First, the general stand-up grappling techniques such as the clinch, wrist locks and so on. These are generally covered under self-defence (hoshinsul) sections of the ITF Encyclopaedia. And second, ground grappling techniques which are known in ITF as ground-techniques (nuwo gisul), with a particular emphasis on specific striking and kicking techniques from the ground and can be found in Volumes 3 and 4 of the ITF Encyclopaedia.

As I understand it, General Choi did not want to standardize self-defence in Taekwon-Do because he believed that self-defence is contextual and so instructors ought to provide the type of self-defence teaching that his or her students are most likely going to need and which are most fitted for their personalities and body types. As such, the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia does not provide any set self-defence (including grappling) syllabus. However, based on principles from the ITF Encyclopaedia, National Governing Bodies and instructors compose their own syllabi. This means that in some countries ground techniques and grappling may not be covered, while it is part and parcel of the technical requirements of other countries; similarly the self-defence curriculum may be quite diverse from one school to another -- with some that do teach grappling, and some that don't.

Regarding ITF Taekwon-Do's grapping arsenal, first their is the sweeping and toppling techniques derived from Taekkyeon. Judo had an early influence on ITF Taekwon-Do as some of the original masters had a Judo background; hence many basic break falling, throws and so on are very similar to that of Judo. (The basic principles for throwing and falling techniques with some examples can be found in Vol. 5 of the ITF Encyclopaedia.) Later, Hapkido techniques were incorporated into Taekwon-Do's self-defense arsenal, so joint-locks, pins and so on are quite similar to that of Hapkido. However, the ITF Encyclopaedia does not refer to joint-locking, only joint-breaking, keeping in mind that originally Taekwon-Do was a military combat system, not a civilian self-defense system.

Later still, the sine wave motion was introduced which follows wave and circle principles found particularly in the Chinese internal martial arts like Tai Chi and Xingyi, so some instructors -- like myself -- emulate the Chinese "chin na" type techniques to reflect ITF Taekwon-Do's current evolution. "Chin na" [逮捕] is known as "chepo sulgi" [체포술기] in Korean and translates as "arresting techniques"; i.e. these are the types of techniques used by law enforcement to control a criminal and arrest them.

Regarding a book, Tony Kemerly and Steve Snyder's "Taekwondo Grappling Techniques: Hone Your Competitive Edge for Mixed Martial Arts" is probably the only book I know of that specifically focus on ITF Taekwon-Do grappling techniques. The book follows the ITF patterns and derive specific grappling style skills from each of the patterns. The book therefore provides a systematic way of learning such techniques and could therefore work very well as a grappling syllabus, but since it follows the patterns the techniques all commence from a standing position and therefore does not really cover ground fighting, but it includes various joint locks, throws and some pins. I hope this helps.


12 June 2013

What the Meditative Value in the ITF Patterns Is Not

I hope to continue my series on the value of the ITF patterns, and in my next instalment in this series I want to discuss the meditative value of the patterns. Most people that uncritically accept Oriental mys-ticism as part and parcel of the Oriental martial art package may not realize that such a discussion is anything but straightforward. As westerners (as I assume most of the readers of this blog are), we have no tradition of “meditation in motion,” as the patterns are sometimes described. Actually the idea of meditation in its modern Oriental manifestation in the West is quite foreign—yes, the European, i.e. Christian tradition, has a history of meditation but what is meant by the word “meditation” is quite dif-ferent.

I will address two issues in this post: first, the idea of meditation; and second, the role of the body in ascetic (spiritual) practise. I’m going to make some sweeping statements, purely because I do not have the time to go into a very detailed discussion and elaboration of the philosophical, historical and cultur-al aspects involved.

The Idea of Meditation in the West and East

What is typically considered Oriental meditation versus Western meditation is very different. Western meditation is much better understood as either prayer on the one hand or contemplation on the other. In both cases the mind is occupied with thought, with only occasional moments of silence in order to “hear” the impressions of the Holy Spirit. In the past when Christians said they meditated, they meant that they were praying or they were “meditating upon God’s Word,” meaning that they were reading a part of Scripture, and contemplating the spiritual significance of the text. Even when the meditation was not on sacred topics, like Newton meditating on the effects of gravity, the term “meditation” was used to signify being in deep thought.

Historically the Western world did not have the type of meditation—of clearing the mind of thoughts—as is so popular today. While the theistic Western idea of meditation was historically to commune with a personal God, the Oriental tradition, including the Buddhist tradition, was pantheistic, with no personal God to communicate with. Communicating with a personal God through prayer and meditation would not have made sense to the Oriental cultures.Since within the ancient Oriental paradigm there did not exist a personal supreme God, but rather a pantheistic impersonal Force (with concepts such as the impersonal Tao or impersonal Chi), prayer doesn’t make sense. The Far Eastern cultures may have prayed to their (personal) ancestors, but they didn’t pray to any personal God, and they didn’t pray or even really meditate upon (prayerfully contemplate) the Tao or Chi. They may have contemplated these topics, but not in a sanctimonious way as the Christian may contemplate the words of Jesus, or Protestants may contemplate the Crucified and Risen Christ or Catholics the Eucharist. For Christians these are acts of worship. When the Chinese Taoists contemplated the Tao, they did not worship the Tao. They may have worshipped their ancestors and build alters and made offerings to their ancestors (keeping in mind that even this differs in purpose from the Western Christian concept of worship), but not to the impersonal Tao, even though it was their major world-view. The same applies to their approach to the Ki.

The Oriental approach to such concepts as the Tao or Ki was very much a practical approach, similar to the way Western societies approached the natural sciences. The Oriental practise of certain movements and meditation to cultivate Ki had a practical purpose—it was believed that the cultivation of Ki could extend one’s life. In fact, Taoist monks believed that through the practise of Qiqong and studying the Tao they could attain immortality—not immortality in the world to come, as Christians believe, but immortality in this present world—or at least extend their life spans in this current world.

In ancient China there existed two traditions of what we may call “meditation in motion” and which functioned as the precursors to modern day martial art forms or patterns. The Wudang tradition had Ta-oist monks training in certain motions to cultivate Ki. Originally, Ki exercises (Qigong) had nothing to do with martial arts. The other tradition was that of the Shaolin monks who also practised a type of forms for meditative purposes. Anyone familiar with the legends of the Oriental martial arts would have heard of the Indian Buddhist monk Boddhidharma teaching his Chinese Buddhist monks certain poses to increase the physical strength and so increase their ability to meditate. Coming from India, the poses he taught them were most certainly yoga poses, and not—as is commonly interpreted—martial art techniques. The Indian yogis use yoga poses as part of their meditation practise. The purpose of such meditation, in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition, is to reach Nirvana, by disconnecting with the present world, in order to transcend into the netherworld.

The Role of the Body in Oriental Spiritual Practise

The Hindu and Buddhist tradition viewed the body dualistically. The body is merely a shell hosting the soul which transmigrates from one body upon death to a new body in an endless cycle of reincarnation until Nirvana is reached. The body was often viewed as a prison or hindrance—although a necessary one to work through one’s karma. In the Hindu tradition ascetic practitioners (yogi) would sometimes torture themselves by going through gruelling self-mastery, which may include self-mutilation, many hours of meditation in extreme physical positions (obscure yoga postures), fasting, and so on. The Buddhist tradition was less extreme, but still required thousands of hours of meditation. And as the Shaolin legend goes, in order to endure such excruciation meditation, strenuous exercise was necessary to strengthen their bodies. The true goal, however, was never the body—but the spirit, never this tem-porary life, but ultimate Nirvana.

The Wudang tradition was different in that it didn’t view the body dualistically. For the Taoist there was only one life, the present one. Their goal was therefore not to purge the soul of bad karma, but merely to extend the current life by cultivating life-giving Ki and by harmonizing with the Tao which would lead to a comfortable life. The purpose was more a practical one than a genuine ascetically spiritual one.

The problem with trying to interpret the ITF patterns as a tool for meditation is firstly that there is no clear line with either the Taoist Wudang tradition, as is the case with Tai-Chi Chuan, or with the Bud-dhist Shaolin tradition, as is the case with Shaolin kungfu. Neither does Taekwon-Do have the same goals as the Taoist Wudang monks or the Buddhist Shaolin monks. Taekwon-Do is purposely non-religious—a point specifically mentioned in the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia. Furthermore, the principle founder of Taekwon-Do, General Choi Hong-Hi was very clear how he understood meditation in Taekwon-Do to be. He clearly stated that mediation in Taekwon-Do is “not a disconnection with the world, like a corpse, as in Buddhism,” (Volume 1). Moreover, General Choi purposefully broke away with the more esoteric interpretations of the traditional martial arts and packaged Taekwon-Do as a modern, “scientific” art based on the natural sciences, in particular Newtonian physics, anatomy and physiology.

To conclude, whatever we want to say about the meditative value and possibly even ascetic value of the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do, we must be very clear that it is not of a religious nature. It is definitely not in the same category as Shaolin kungfu. There may be some overlap with the Wudang tradition though—in that both the Taoists and Taekwon-Do has a health focus; the difference being however that for the Taoists this meant purposefully cultivating Ki, while in Taekwon-Do Ki is not emphasized and any such cultivation is a by-product rather than a goal in itself.

The meditative value of the ITF patterns, therefore, has to be searched for elsewhere than in the ascetic pursuits of the Chinese styles where the martial art forms supposedly originated.

Just to emphasize again, I’m making many sweeping statements about Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and related martial arts in my writings above.

30 May 2013


Jodi, Instructor Philip, and Juan.

This past weekend Bsbnim Philip de Vos of our Potchefstroom Dojang took two students to the annual ATC Invitational Tournament in Pretoria. Jodi Siecker (10th Gup) won a silver medal in the Senior Female Novice Patterns Division. Juan Dyason also won a silver for his pattern performance in the Senior Male Novice Patterns Division, as well as a bronze medal in the Senior Male Novice Sparring +85kg Division. A big congratulations to these two representatives of the Potchefstroom Dojang for their wins at there first competition, as well as to their instructor for his excellent coaching. The Soo Shim Kwan would also like to thank the organizers of the ATC for another excellent tournament.

29 April 2013

An Exposition on the Value of the Patterns in the ITF Taekwon-Do Pedagogy

This post brings together different essays I wrote on this blog regarding what I consider to be the value of the patterns as they are performed in ITF Taekwon-Do, keeping in mind the pedagogical paradigm of ITF Taekwon-Do.

While the forms in some martial arts may have purely practical value, the ITF patterns also serve as a vehicle to disseminate Korean philosophy, history, culture and aesthetics.

It would be wrong, therefore, to try and interpret the patters as primarily templates for fighting. While the patterns do have some practical application value, the ITF patterns are not fighting templates, and the way we move in the ITF patterns is not to be confused with how one would or should move during a real combative encounter. Nor is the main purpose of the patterns dallyeon, i.e. physical conditioning. Undoubtedly one will become exhausted from training the patterns, but the way the patterns are performed in ITF Taekwon-Do actually removes much of the physical difficulty (or "load") in the form of very deep stances, long periods of tension, or chains of quick connecting movements.

The primary value, I believe, of the way the patterns are performed in ITF Taekwon-Do is to nurture certain kinaesthetic awareness and ability.

In my first post on the topic of the kinaesthetic value of the patterns I discuss relaxation, body awareness, and spacial awareness. In other words:

. . .the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns is concerned with teaching the practitioner to move from a state of relaxation. Furthermore, the patterns focus on body awareness (getting acquainted with one's static and dynamic balance), and spacial awareness, while also ingraining certain stances, basics, and increasing coordination.

My second post on the topic of the kinaesthetic value of patterns focuses on the emphasis on the acceleration of body mass in the patterns:

. . . a primary value of the patterns is to supply an environment in which to drill the acceleration of body mass in techniques, while using sequential motion to create a whip-like effect, and using gravity's force as an aid where appropriate. Moving with a sense of relaxation is a key ingredient in this regard. Although there is generally no sense of urgency in between techniques (with some exceptions), there is a definite sense of urgency in accelerating each individual technique quite rapidly. 

In the third post on the kinaesthetic value of the patterns I discuss rhythm-and-tempo, timing, and breathing:

The ITF patterns is the primary place where Taekwon-Do's rhythm and tempo is drilled. The rhythm guides the practitioner in acquiring when to relax and when to tense while executing techniques. The rhythm and tempo also teach strategic principles based on the Taegeuk (opposite forces of hard and soft) as well the Korean Sam-Taegeuk (three-phase forces). The patterns also became the foundation for training in timing, which is more fully practised in other parts of the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy. Finally, the patterns are a place that emphasises proper breathing, which is one of the most important principles in the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum.

Finally the patterns also have an ascetic or meditative function that involves a form of mind-training, which I will discuss in a future post.

In summary, the ITF patterns have act as a vehicle for disseminating Korean philosophy  history, culture and aesthetics, for training certain kinaesthetic principles, and they may also have an ascetic or meditative function.