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.

25 May 2014

What Was Ahn Joong-Gun's Age at His Death?

Me at the Ahn Joong-Gun Memorial Museum
in Seoul, South Korea, in 2009.
Recently I received a question from a Taekwon-Do friend, Markus Wittebo, from the Swedish Taekwon-Do Federation in Gottenburg:

The Taekwon-Do pattern Joong-Gun has 32 movements and is named after the patriot Ahn Joong-Gun, who was born on 16 July 1879 and died by execution on March 26, 1910. That means that he was 30 years old at the time of his death. However, the description of the pattern Joong-Gun states the following: “There are 32 movements in this pattern to represent Mr. Ahn’s age when he was executed at Lui-Shung prison (1910).” How is this to be explained? 

Was General Choi Hong Hi, who composed the pattern definitions, wrong about Ahn Joong-Gun's age? In this short essay I will explain why Ahn Joong-Gun was both 30 years old and 32 years old at the time he died.

There is no question that Ahn Joong-Gun was indeed 30 years old when he was executed for the assassin of the samurai Prince Itō Hirobumi, who was the Japanese Resident-General of Korea. Ahn Joon-Gun was born in 1879 and died in 1910 over three months before his 31st birthday—making him 30 years when he died. How then can the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia claim that the reason the pattern Joong-Gun has 32 movements is in honour of Ahn Joong-Gun's age when he was executed? The answer is that in Korea there is a different way of calculating one's age.

The first important thing to know is that Koreans count the gestation period when calculating ones age, and so according to Korean custom a baby is already considered to be one year old at birth. So during the first year of a baby's life, it is considered one sal (살) and an additional sal is counted for every extra year of life. This is different from the international way of reckoning one's age where one is only considered to be one year old after your first birthday. Keeping this in mind, then Ahn Joong-Gun was 30 years, plus one sal by 1910, when he passed away.

There is another interesting aspect of Korean culture in that all Koreans increase one year in age on “Ibchun” (입춘) the beginning of spring and the start of the Lunar Calendar, which is usually around the beginning of February. In other words, Koreans do not wait for their actual birth date to add a year to their age; instead everyone ages at the same time at the start of the lunar new year. (On a side note, Koreans do celebrate their birthdays, but it is a memorial of their date of birth, rather than a memorial of becoming one year older. Furthermore, some Korean families celebrate their birthdays according to the lunar calendar, while others apply the solar calendar when deciding when to celebrate their birthdays.)

Therefore, even though Ahn Joong-Gun was 30 years old by Western reckoning at the time of his death, by Korean reckoning he would have been 31 (because Koreans add one year at birth), and since it was already after “Ibchun” when he died, he was said to be another year older, making him 32 years old according to Korean custom. Thus, stating that Ahn Joong-Gun passed away at the age of 32 makes sense within the Korean cultural context.

Below is a video of Alexandra Kan performing Joong-Gun Teul. 

23 May 2014

Nominating General Choi Hong Hi for the Taekwondowon's (Taekwondo Park) Hall of Fame

I received the following by email and gladly re-post it here:

Absent political considerations there should be no valid reason to exclude Gen. Choi from any Martial Art Hall Of Fame. While his many accomplishments speak for themselves, many do not realize that some of what he did was unprecedented & at times unmatched in the TKD world. However because at various points in his life some of his personal political views concerning his unfairly divided homeland of Korea & certain governmental leaders back home resulted in some negativity that has unfortunately tainted his TKD record.
While Gen. Choi’s personal politics & views are his own, many feel that it should not impact what he did for TKD & how his work continues to influence millions globally in a very positive way. As a result you, as a TKD person, should take the time out to send an email to the new Taekwondowon in MuJu, South Korea respectfully requesting that Gen. Choi receive the highest honor possible for his international impact on TKD. We know 1 thing for sure, without Gen. Choi there would be no TKD. He of course named it. Now there still may have been another Korean Martial Sport that made it into the Olympics, but it would not have been TKD. So every single student of TKD, no matter his or her age, rank or location on this planet, owes some small debt of gratitude to Gen. Choi. PLEASE take a brief moment of your time to send an email to:

It is the least we can do & if not Gen. Choi, then really, who does deserve this honor?

You are not limited with your nominations. You can feel free to nominate anyone you feel is worthy. However if we don’t succeed in getting Gen. Choi honored, it probably will not be possible initially to have any of his followers acknowledged. Also please understand the Taekwondowon put out requests on their Korean language Facebook Page & website. They have also sent a request to the WTF for nominations. So if you don’t nominate Gen. Choi who will? There is no apparent visible outreach to the ITF side. Please do not allow politics to continue to get disrupt the martial art way or TKD’s “DO”! The Taekwondowon needs to hear from all of us, as they are on record saying their new TKD Park is for all. So lets please give them the opportunity to demonstrate that wonderful posture with fair & just action by honoring the man who started it all.

Thank you

Please feel free to use information from the below sections of sources for your email. Also it is okay to simply send an email without using the facts listed below & only state that you wish to nominate Gen. Choi Hong-Hi. That is fine & better than not sending in a nomination.

However it is respectfully requested that people do not simply cut & paste whole sections for use in their email nominations. But rather you should feel free to state your personal thoughts or reasons why he so deserves the highest induction. The below information can be used to guide you, if you find value in it.

A) (Shorter Version)

Ambassador Choi Hong-Hi
(2 Star) Major-General (Army Serial #10044)
Ambassador Choi was the “principle founder” of Taekwon-Do. As a founding member of the Republic Of Korea (ROK) Army he taught martial arts to the soldiers assigned to him from 1946. He named Taekwon-Do and promoted it endlessly as the Korean Martial Art of Self Defense. In 1955 through his unending efforts on behalf of Taekwon-Do the 1st President of South Korea, Dr. Rhee, authorized the new name. He was the Vice President of the Taekwon-Do Association of Korea in 1957. General Choi formed the Korean Taekwon-Do Association (KTA) in 1959 and served as President. Also in 1959 he wrote the first book on Taekwon-Do and led the Military Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team to Vietnam and Taiwan, marking the first time ever Taekwon-Do was performed abroad.

General Choi devised 26 Patterns or Tuls. These were the first Korean forms or Poomsae ever created. In 1962 he personally introduced Taekwon-Do to Malaysia when he was assigned there as the 1st Korean Ambassador. In 1965 he led a ROK Government sponsored Kukki Taekwon-Do Goodwill tour around the world. This tour formed the base in 1966 for creating International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF), the 1st worldwide governing body for Taekwon-Do. The ITF would grow to have millions of members in well over a hundred countries and he would preside over 17 of their World Championships from 1974 to 2001 while he was alive. Five of those were Junior World Championships. To date the ITF has held 18 World Championships, 12 Junior World Championships (under age 18) and 5 Veterans World Championships (over age 40). Ambassador Choi traveled the world tirelessly to teach and promote the original Taekwon-Do. He authored 5 books on the subject, many of which had several editions and reprints. His written works have been translated into at least 6 languages. General Choi also oversaw the development of various sets of electronic recordings of what he created; making it the most documented Martial Art ever.

B)  (Longer Version)

Ambassador Choi Hong-Hi
(2 Star) Major-General (Army Serial #10044)
 General Choi was a “founding member” (#44 of 110 Officer Candidates) of the Republic of (south) Korea’s (ROK) Armed Forces when he graduated from their 1st Military Academy in 1946. In 1962 a year after a military coup (May 16th 1961 Revolution) took place Mr. Choi was assigned to the ROK’s Diplomatic Foreign Service Corp and sent to Malaysia as the 1st Korean Ambassador to that Southeast Asian Country. His involvement and work with personally introducing Taekwon-Do there, gave rise to Malaysia being called the “2nd Home of Taekwon-Do”. Ambassador Choi’s power he held and yielded in these high-level government capacities afforded him the opportunities to become the most significantly important and influential person in Taekwon-Do’s creation, development and global dissemination.

General Choi claimed that he had been exposed to stories and some basic Taek Kyon techniques to bolster his health and confidence when he studied Calligraphy as a frail teenager. After he went to Japan to further his academic education he reports earning a II Dan in Karate. Independent sources confirm that he did indeed teach Karate in Japan at a YMCA before returning home to Korea.

As World War II was winding down, the Japanese who were now clearly losing, resorted to forcefully conscripting Korean males into military service. Once drafted into service through no volition of his own, a young Choi Hong-Hi became involved in a plot to overthrow the Imperial Japanese Colonial Government. Traitors who were Korean collaborators reported the plans and General Choi and others were jailed. While he was imprisoned he trained in his Karate and at times even instructed the prison guards, as verified by a fellow inmate who was involved in the plot and also held in confinement as a jail mate.

The end of WWII spared General Choi and he was released from captivity in Pyongyang. He went to Seoul and became instrumental in helping to set up the South Korean government, advocating for democratic national control and against communism. As a young 2nd Lieutenant he started to teach his soldiers Karate under the Tang Su Do label. As this Junior Officer moved up the ranks, he continued to spread through not only his personal teaching efforts, but also later recruited Korean Martial Artists to become instructors to teach the growing number of soldiers under his command. Even when he traveled to the USA for military training as early as 1949, he took the opportunity to display his martial art (most likely 1st Korean to do so).
A prime example of this initiative to teach the martial arts to his soldiers was when as a General he was tasked to form a new Division on JeJu Island. This 29th Infantry would become known as the “Fist Division”. It was here that he had Lt. Nam Tae Hi and Sgt. Han Cha Kyo, members of the Chung Do Kwan transferred under his command and assigned to teach the Martial Arts to the soldiers of this new Infantry Division. The use of General Choi’s fist on the Division Flag and emblem was symbolic of the Martial fighting spirit the young General wanted to instill in his Troops. A monument was erected on JeJu Island to commemorate the historic “Fist Division” inauguration. This monument contains the Calligraphy of Gen. Choi, labeling and teaching about that Martial Spirit. JeJu Island has come to be known as the “Womb of Taekwon-Do”.

When this famous Division completed their training they moved to mainland Korea. General Choi arranged for a martial art demonstration for the Korean President Dr. SeungMan Rhee. The performance was in honor of the President’s birthday and the 1-year anniversary celebration of the “Fist Division’s” formation. Their exhibition was so successful that the President stated that this should be taught to all the Troops! President Rhee had also called what they showed Taek Kyon, an indigenous Korean martial folk game that predated the Japanese occupation. General Choi however knew that is was more correctly called Tang Soo Do. This event provided motivation to find a new name for what would become a Korean Martial Art of self-defense.

Later in the fall of that year (1954) General Choi, utilizing both his advanced education and Calligraphy skills that involved extensive knowledge of Chinese characters and language searched for and later conceived of the new term Tae Kwon Do. This label more accurately reflected the shifting emphasis on the use of the legs for kicking. It of course had a word for fist, but like the “Fist Division”, a hand formed into a fist signified strength. So Kwon was joined with Tae to describe the physical parts of their Martial Art.

After General Choi created the new name of Taekwon-Do, he then engaged in several attempts to unify the civilian Martial Art Kwans as he had obtained the Korean President’s approval. In 1957 he became the Vice President of a short-lived Taekwon-Do Association of Korea. The president of the Association at that time was a non-martial artist and politician. Then Master Son Duk-Sung the instructor of the Chung Do Kwan served as the Secretary General. General Choi also served as the honorary Kwan Jang Nim of the Chung Do Kwan, after their founder Grandmaster Lee Won-Kuk moved to Japan in 1950. The Chung Do Kwan was one of the 1st Korean Martial Art Kwans to open post WWII in Korea. It was a very influential Kwan and many of their Members staffed General Choi’s military training programs as instructors.

In 1959 he led the 1st Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team abroad when he took the team to Vietnam and Taiwan in March. That same year he established and became the 1st Director of the Martial Art Department in the Army. On September 3rd, 1959 he formed the 1st Korean Taekwon-Do Association and served as their President. A couple of months later he authored the 1st book ever on Taekwon-Do, written in Korean HanGul and Chinese HanJa. This book documented the first five Korean Patterns he created and is currently on display in the Taekwondowon.

General Choi would go onto authored several other books, including the 1972 textbook that became known as the “bible of Taekwon-Do”, the unprecedented 15 Volume Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do in 1983, several condensed versions of that work, his 3 Volume Set of Memoirs, as well as a Guidebook on Moral Culture. His written texts have been translated into Korean, English, German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. He has received numerous awards and honors for his global work on Taekwon-Do including the Korean (ROK) Government Sports Award in 1968.

While still Ambassador to Malaysia he flew to Vietnam in 1964 to introduce his new Tuls to the Korean Military Instructors for further dissemination. He also sent the manuscripts back to Korea where they were instituted there as well. After completing his diplomatic assignment he returned to Korea and in January of 1965 was elected the 3rd President of the Korean TAE SOO DO Association. He was successful in getting them to change the name to Tae Kwon Do by August of 1965. He then led the ROK Government sponsored Kukki Taekwon-Do Goodwill Tour around the world later in the fall of 1965.

Ambassador Choi moved the ITF Headquarters to Toronto Canada, a city that is a very diverse major metropolitan area in North America. This new location afforded him a geographically advantaged position half way between Asia and Europe, as well as due north from South America and the Caribbean.

Strategically this would help to further the internationalization of Taekwon-Do as a global martial art. In 1985 he again relocated the ITF Headquarters to Vienna Austria. Vienna is located in Central Europe and Austria maintains a long-standing neutral posture that allows equal access politically. This was especially important during the “Cold War” era and the days of the “Iron Curtain” divide of Europe and the global political polarization that resulted from competing political ideologies. This brilliant move helped Ambassador Choi to further his dream of spreading his Taekwon-Do all around the world, without regard for political ideology, national boundaries, race, religion or creed. A vision that he lived to see come true! Today there are numerous international chapters, secretariat offices, national headquarters and allied associations of the ITF all around the planet. This is living proof of the fact that his dream was indeed realized, which is evidence of his earning a place of honor in the Taekwondowon’s Hall Of Fame. If not him, at the top of the field, then who? If General Choi Hong Hi is not inducted then no one else should be either. As without him there is no Taekwon-Do. To not place the highest honor upon him would not only be a tragedy, but make the new entity’s attempt to honor great Taekwondo leaders a real farce!

C) (List Version)

1) As a founding member of the ROK Army he taught Korean Martial Arts to soldiers under his command since 1946
2) 1949 He traveled to the USA for military training and  took the opportunity to display his martial art there (most likely 1st Korean to do so)
3) 1953 formed the 29th Infantry “Fist” Division on JeJu Island using Korean Martial Arts to build character, strength, fighting skills and instill esprit de corps
4) 1955 (April 11) he named Taekwon-Do & obtained authorization from the Korean President Rhee Syngman
5) 1955 created the 1st two Korean Poomsae or forms, Hwa Rang Tul & Chung Mu Tul, he would go onto to create 26 in total, all named after great Korean Patriots or significant events & themes in Korean history & culture
6) 1957 Vice President of the short lived Taekwon-Do Association of Korea
7) 1959 (March) Led the Military Taekwon-Do Demonstration Team to Vietnam & Taiwan; the 1st time ever Taekwon-Do was exhibited abroad
8) 1959 (September 3) Formed the Korea Taekwon-Do Association & was electerd 1st President
9) 1959 (October) Wrote the 1st book ever on Taekwon-Do
10) 1959 Established and became the 1st Director of the Martial Art Department in the Army
11) 1962 Personally introduced Taekwon-Do to Malaysia when assigned there as the 1st Korean Ambassador
12) 1963 (July) Formed the Malaysian Taekwon-Do Federation
13) 1965 (January) Elected as the 3rd President of the Korean Tae Soo Do Association
14) 1965 (August) Was successfully in lobby for changing the name to Tae Kwon Do
15) 1965 Wrote the 1st English language book on Taekwon-Do
16) 1965 Led a ROK Government sponsored Kukki Taekwon-Do GoodWill Tour around the world
17) 1966 (March 22) Formed the International Taekwon-Do Federation (ITF) in Seoul, Korea
18) 1968 Introduced Taekwon-Do to C.I.S.M. at their meeting in Paris, France
19) 1972 Wrote a Textbook that was commonly referred to as the “bible of Taekwon-Do”
20) 1974 Hosted the 1st ITF World Championships in Montreal Canada, which was the 1st ever World Championships outside of Korea which demonstrated that Taekwon-Do was truly an international sport & there they introduced 4 categories of competition, as well as team events, to insure the Overall World Champion was a complete martial artist
21) 1978 The ITF World championships were held in Oklahoma City, USA & expanded to female competitors for the 1st time
22) 1981 The ITF World Championships were held in Argentina; the 1st time ever a world championship was hosted in South America
23) 1983 Completed the 15 Volume Set of Encyclopedia of Taekwon-Do, a written work truly unprecedented in the martial arts world
24) 1984 The ITF World Championships were held in Scotland; the 1st time ever a Taekwon-Do world championship was hosted in a United Kingdom Commonwealth Nation
25) 1985 Relocated the ITF Headquarters to Vienna Austria, as Vienna is located in Central Europe and Austria maintains a long-standing neutral political posture
26) 1987 The ITF World Championships were held in Athens, Greece; the 1st time ever a Taekwon-Do world championship was hosted in Greece
27) 1988 The ITF World Championships were held in Budapest Hungary; the 1st time ever a Taekwon-Do world championship was hosted in Eastern Europe
28) 1993 The ITF Junior (under 18) World Championships were held in Moscow, Russia the 1st time ever a Taekwon-Do world championship was opened to junior competitors
29) 2004 The ITF World Championships were expanded to seniors (over 40), the 1st time ever a Taekwon-Do world championship ever had a Veteran competition, envisioning Gen. Choi’s idea that Taekwon-Do was for all ages
30) Received numerous awards and honors for his global work on Taekwon-Do including the Korean (ROK) Government Sports Award in 1968, honorary doctorates from some of the world’s most prestigious Universities & was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to build a more peaceful world by teaching Taekwon-Do globally for decades to everyone, regardless of political ideology, national boundaries, race, religion or creed

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.