29 May 2011

Hsing-I Quan and ITF Taekwon-Do

A recent post by another blogger made me look at the Chinese internal style Hsing-I Quan (aka Xingyiquan) 形意拳 again. There are two things that stood out to me when I looked into Hsing-I Quan today.

The first is the striking similarity (no pun intended) in movement between Hsing-I Quan and ITF Taekwon-Do. The blogger quotes Tim Cartmell who describes movement in Hsing-I Quan as “mass in motion” and “controlled falling.” This is probably the central thesis of power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do, which I described before as: "accelerate as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique, with emphasis on strong exhalation, and without compromising your balance and posture."

Look at the two YouTube videos below. In the first we see the Hsing-I Quan practitioner (Master Hai Yang) performing the Five Elements and Linking Forms. In the second video another practitioner begins with a “water bending” sequence, followed by the Five Elements. The Five Elements Forms are the fundamental sequences in Hsing-I Quang training. If you truly understand the basic principles of movement in ITF Taekwon-Do, the similarities in movement between Hsing-I and ITF Taekwon-Do are glaringly obvious. Notice, for instance, the sense of an intermediate position in the forms. Although the intermediate positions are not as clearly paused as seen in the videos below, it is very clear that ITF Taekwon-Do and Hsing-I Quang have this in common. Also notice, especially in the second video, how the practitioner clearly accelerates his mass by turning his hip in the direction of the technique, while at the same time dropping his body weight down, similar to the motions in ITF Taekwon-Do.

A descriptive line in Wikipedia describes Hsing-I Quan as follows: “. . . xingyiquan uses coordinated movements to generate bursts of power intended to overwhelm the opponent, simultaneously attacking and defending.” ITF Taekwon-Do is all about “coordinated movements to generate bursts of power”and higher level Taekwon-Do training focus on “simultaneously attacking and defending,” as seen, for instance, in One Step Sparring. But it is that idea of “mass in motion” and “controlled falling” that I find most interesting.

This is not the first time I've noticed similarties between ITF Taekwon-Do and Chinese internal martial arts, of which the three main ones are Tai Chi Quan, Baqua Zhang and Hsing-I Quan. In a previous post I referred to the similarities between ITF Taekwon-Do and Chen style Tai Chi Quan.

"to strike or break with the fist"

The second thing I realised while looking into Hsing-I Quan regards the name. I've always assumed that the last character is Kwan (Hangeul: 관 / Hanja: 館), meaning “house” or within the context of the martial arts, “style”; thus the “Style of Hsing-I.” I thought it is the same character one sees in Moo Do Kwan or Soo Shim Kwan. I was completely mistaken. It is not Kwan, but Kwon (Hangeul: 권 / Hanja: ). The Korean for Hsing-I Quan 形意拳 is Hyeong Eui Kwon 형의권. The last character in Hsing-I Quan 권 / is actually the middle character in Tae Kwon Do 태권도 / 跆拳道.

I find this profoundly interesting. It means that General Choi Hong-Hi, the principal founder of Taekwon-Do and also the person who proposed the name Taekwon-Do, specifically chose this character that is present in the names of such iconic Chinese internal martial arts as Hsing-I Quan and Tai Chi Quan. Kwon 권 / 拳, as every Taekwon-Doin knows, means “to strike or break with the fist.” True, the character can literally translate as fist 주먹 and is often used to denote “pugilism” or "boxing,” but keep in mind that General Choi was a calligraphist and had an intimate knowledge of Chinese (Hanja) characters and must have been fully aware of the connotation this character has with such Chinese martial arts as Hsing-I Quan and Tai Chi Quan. By choosing the name Tae Kwon Do 태권도 / 跆拳道 he was positioning Taekwon-Do within a specific group of martial arts. The first character links it to Korean martial arts (referring phonemically to Taekkyeon); the second syllable referred to traditional Chinese martial arts like Hsing-I Quan, Tai Chi Quan, Shaolin Quan, and so on; and the final character positioned Taekwon-Do as one of the new modern styles, like Aikido and Judo, that emerged in Japan.

I'm pleased with my (belated) 권 / discovery as it confirms something I have intuitively felt for quite some time. I cannot believe I've overlooked it for so long.

28 May 2011

WTF and a Lack of Hands

A young man who is new to the martial arts asked me this afternoon about the differences between ITF Taekwon-Do and WTF Taekwon-Do. I gave him the boring answer: WTF is a sport; ITF is an art. (The setting was not ideal for a detailed compare-and-contrast exposition.) The reference to sport, of course, took the conversation into the way WTF does tournament sparring and why they spar with their arms dangling by their sides.

Image Source: Focus Fitness Centre, Scotland
It all comes down to tournament rules and sport sparring – a topic I've complaint about before. There are three main reasons why WTF Taekwon-Do players do not use their hands to guard as is common (even obvious) in most other martial arts.

The first is the padding. With their bodies protected with body armour and their heads with a helmet, the player does not feel a real sense of danger. When you are kicked, it just doesn't hurt enough for you to use your arms to guard. When I was a colour belt the black belts I sparred against during class training cracked a rib and bruised my sternum. This was needed only once for me to learn to guard properly. Pain is a wonderful teacher. Body armour removes the fear of pain and therefore also the incentive to guard with the arms.

The second is that punches to head in WTF Taekwon-Do is illegal. Because you do not have to worry about being punched in the face, there is no reason to keep the hands up to guard for face punches. Yes, kicks to the head is legal, but you have a helmet for protection and the power of the kicks make it unlikely for the blocks to work in any case. Again, keeping your arms up is not a serious consideration..

Finally, points are scored by means of “shock techniques.” The techniques basically has to shift the opponent or knock him out. Although it is legally permisible to score a point to the body with a punch, it is extremely difficult to achieve that type of “shock” power necessary, especially keeping in mind that the opponent has a thick chest protector on.

In short, the reason WTF tend not to use hand techniques (including keeping their arms up for guarding) is strongly determined by their tournament rules.

ITF Taekwon-Do may not suffer from a hand issue that much, but that does not mean that tournament sparring does not affect us negatively either. For one, attacks below the belt are illegal in typical ITF tournament sparring. The result is an unfortunate lack of knowledge by most ITF practitioners of how to perform the many possible low attacks; and even more importantly, how to defend oneself from low attacks. I've learned more about low attacks (and defences against low attacks) in two months of Taekkyeon training than in 15 years of Taekwon-Do study, even though most of the Taekkyeon ideas are embedded in ITF as well. Part of the reason why I learned so much in such a short time is because in Taekkyeon the sparring focusses on low attacks. Apart from low attacks, other things we (ITF practitioners) should spend time on are the clinch and grappling; for the same reason -- these ranges of fighting tend to be neglected in ITF Taekwon-Do, not because they are not part of Taekwon-Do, but because they are illegal in tournament sparring.

Luckily a few people still teach traditional sparring where anything goes and students can learn about the whole arsenal that ITF Taekwon-Do has to offer.

24 May 2011

More on (Martial) Science versus (Martial) Art

I think more and more that 'art' in combative or martial arts is probably the right word. It is and must be a creative, spontaneous process. The logical part of the brain, the one that tries to remember what you were taught or what you 'should' do is too slow. But so is the creative part, if it is bounded. – Rory Miller (Violence Expert)

In previous posts I've been quite adamant that I do not consider Taekwon-Do a martial science, but rather “a martial art based on certain scientific principles.” One reason I feel so strongly about this is because Taekwon-Do claims to be a system of self-defence. Self-defence presupposes chaos and uncertainty. For a scientific system to function effectively, chaos and uncertainty cannot exist.

In previous posts I tried to explain in what way Taekwon-Do is to be understood as an art (see here and here). In this post I will discuss an occasion in which Taekwon-Do is indeed a science and then see how we can merge these two concepts resulting in a “martial art based on scientific principles.”

While I strongly believe that Taekwon-Do is not a science, there are many aspects of Taekwon-Do that is indeed scientific. Probably the best illustration of this is found in one of ITF Taekwon-Do's sport categories: power breaking.

Source: C J Photographers
In a tournament, power breaking involves the breaking of wooden (pine) boards or special plastic boards that can be reassembled afterwards known as rebreakable boards. Sometimes bricks, tiles, ice, wooden poles and even flat stones are also broken. The objects are broken with Taekwon-Do techniques, such as punches, strikes and kicks. Heavy people can break such things with mere brute muscular strength. Surprisingly, smaller individuals are also able to do astonishing breaking, although they are lighter in weight and weaker in strength. How do they accomplish it? They achieve this through the application of certain scientific (Newtonian) principles. Power breaking is an aspect of ITF Taekwon-Do that is wholly scientific. Effective breaking is only achieved if scientific principles such as angle of force, penetration of force, duration of force, momentum (mass and speed) are correctly applied. One can increase the force of the technique by scientifically adjusting the angle, the penetration, the duration and momentum. You practise this over and over again, perfecting your technique. This is possible because the variables are so few: the boards do not randomly change in density; the boards do not randomly change position; the boards do not randomly change angle; the boards do not have a mind of their own and don't dodge as you punch them or try to kick you as you come close; the boards do not have friends that attack you from behind; the boards do not jump you in a parking lot when you least expect it. It is easy to be scientific when you can control or manipulate the variables. It requires something else completely when you do not control and cannot predict the variables.

Below is the scene from Enter the Dragon where Bruce Lee famously says: "Boards don't hit back."

Certain aspects of Taekwon-Do like power breaking, special technique breaking, and even prearranged sparring can be very scientific. If Taekwon-Do was limited to these aspects only, then it would definitely have been a martial science, since we can control or predict the variables as one can control and predict the variables in a scientific experiment. But Taekwon-Do claims to be more. It claims to ultimately be a form of self-defence. Real occurrences of self-defence do not occur in a closed system like a scientific experiment. Instead, self-defence occurs in the chaos of life, where science must make room for creativity, spontaneity, and improvisation. (Creativity, spontaneity, and improvisation tend to be exceedingly 'unscientific' activities.) In other words, real self-defence requires an artistic expression, rather than a purely scientific aptitude.

However, ITF Taekwon-Do does rely heavily on scientific principles gained from Newtonian physics, biomechanics and anatomy. We use these scientific fields as the maxims for moving our bodies and approaching the bodies of our opponents, in the same way as a painter approaches his paints, brushes and canvas according to a certain “art manifesto.”

While some aspects of ITF Taekwon-Do can be defined “scientific,” the system as a whole is better defined as “a martial art based on certain scientific principles.”

Read More:

  • "A Principle Based (Martial) Art", in which I discuss the idea of a martial art based on scientific principles and compare it to other arts based on a manifesto.
  • "Should one always move this way?", in which I discuss the two schools of thought: the one a wholly scientific approach and the other a more creative approach that embraces improvisation. 

22 May 2011

Thoughts on Hard Blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do

Traditional martial arts instructor Dan Djurdjevic has recently started revisiting basic techniques at his blog The Way of Least Resistance. I especially like his discussions on blocking techniques.

Focussing on Karate-type blocks, Mr Djurdjevic defines blocks as follows:

a more correct term would be "deflection", "parry" or "interception". Generally traditional blocks are used to intercept and redirect attacks rather than stop them dead in their tracks. In karate and other Japanese/Okinawan arts these techniques are classified as "uke". "Uke" comes from the Japanese word "ukeru" meaning "to receive".

While our (ITF) system performs its fundamental movements somewhat differently from the way Mr Djurdjevic explains the traditional blocks in his system, there is enough overlap to make it valuable reading (as with most of his blog).

How do we view blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do? As I wrote in the post “Defensive Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do” in ITF we have two categories of blocks, which I term soft blocks and hard blocks. “The purpose of a hard block is to 'attack' and hurt the opponent's attacking limb and so protect yourself. In so doing the opponent's attack is forcefully redirected.” On the other hand, “[t]he purpose of soft blocks are to deflect an attack by redirecting the force of the attack, or to unbalance the opponent using some kind of pushing motion. Unlike hard blocks that put emphasis on hurting the opponent's attacking tool, soft blocks put emphasis on redirecting [or deflecting] the force of the attack and / or breaking the opponent's equilibrium.”

Okinawa Karate practitioners doing forearm
conditioning exercises. (Source)
What I'm not reading in Mr Djurdjevic's posts on blocking is the idea that blocks are purposed to hurt the opponent as is the case with our hard blocks. Even his discussion on forearm blocks focus more on their function to deflect attacks. It seems that his approach to blocking is in line with how we use soft blocks. Hard blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do are used as attacks, albeit attacking of the opponents attacking limbs; deflection of an incoming attack is a secondary, although a very important function. (You can read of Mr. Djurdjevic's understanding of the hard block versus soft block issue here.) The emphasis on “attacking” with hard blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do becomes especially clear when you consider that some ITF instructors require their students to perform board breaking with their blocks, using for instance the forearms to “strike” through boards employing typical blocking motions like the outer forearm outward low block (the first movement in pattern Chon-Ji). Although not all instructors require their students to break boards with blocks (only one of my instructors stressed it), most Taekwon-Do instructors emphasize the conditioning of blocking tools. The idea of hard blocks being considered as attacks is also highlighted in the tournament sparring rules of one of the ITF-groups where a properly executed fundamental block can earn you a point. In other words, just as one can score a point for a punch to a target area, so too can one score a point for a proper fundamental block to your opponent's attacking limb.

There is, of course, a problem with the idea of using blocks as attacks. Blocks are reactive in nature, which means that blocks innately begin after your assailant commenced his attack. For it to be effective your hard block must be extremely fast. It is analogous to landing a punch to your opponent before his fist reaches you, even though he started his punch before you started yours. It is possible, but extremely difficult and requires super fast reflexes. This is one of the reasons why we almost never see traditional blocking in ITF tournaments even though it could score points.

Still, such attack-blocks are possible. My first instructor, Mr Johan Bolton, told me of one of his peers who specialised in blocking during tournaments. I can't remember the name of the person (I think it was one of the Ackerman-brothers). He would set out to purposefully hurt his opponent's limbs during tournaments by means of very fast and very hard blocks and when a successful block landed his opponent would shift that limb to the rear, too scared to attack with it again, lest it be hurt more. Apparently he won a number of fights by practically disarming his opponents. While I've never personally seen anybody use hard blocks in tournaments like this before, I have no reason to distrust this account by Mr Bolton. Furthermore, I have no doubt of the ability of hard blocks to damage someone as I have myself used hard blocks on someone before, only to later find out (by means of X-rays) that the blocks resulted in bone fractures.

Ridge hand (aka reverse-knife hand) block.
Source: Sonkal
Using hard blocks as attacks need not be limited to limbs only. One can just as easily use a forearm block to strike the neck of an opponent, for instance. By grabbing an opponent's wrist with one hand, you can use the other arm to perform an inward forearm block on the opponent's elbow joint. A close acquaintance of mine used an outward ridge hand block on the ear of a rowdy suspect while he was in the police force. The block resulted in severe trauma to the man's inner ear causing blood to emerge from his ear and nose. These are just a few examples of hard blocks being used, not merely to hurt attacking limbs, but as actually attacks to vital spots.

When we practise hard blocks merely as methods of deflection we are not doing them as they were meant to be used in ITF Taekwon-Do. If the focus is on merely deflecting, avoiding or surviving an incoming attack, soft blocks, body shifting and guards are better suited. I explained these in the aforementioned post: “Defensive Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do.”

Also Read: Blocking in ITF Taekwon-Do, in which I consider five types of blocks in ITF Taekwon-Do, that go beyond the simple hard block versus soft block dichotomy.

15 May 2011

Happy Teachers' Day!

May 15th is Teachers' Day (스승의 날) in South Korea. Martial arts instructors also qualify, so it is appropriate for me to wish all the martial art instructors that visit this blog a Happy Teachers' Day.

In Korea, Teachers' Day is a day on which students show their appreciation to their teachers for sharing their knowledge and for nurturing the academic growth of the students. Students usually give carnations, cards and sometimes gifts to their teachers.  For instance, I received a carnation, chocolates, Korean rice cake and other gifts. If Teachers' Day happen over a weekend, like this year, students may prepare their tokens of appreciation on the Friday before or the Monday after the weekend.

And to all my own martial art instructors I have had during the many years I have been active in the martial arts, thank you for the many lessons (many of them life-lessons) you have taught me through the years. Also, to the other martial art bloggers, I'm learning much from reading your blogs too. Happy Teachers' Day!

14 May 2011

Kwang-Gae Teul (Tul)

Kwang-Gae, better romanized Gwang-Gae, is one of the three 1st Dan patterns. It is named after Great King Gwang-Gae To 광개토태왕.  The ITF Encyclopaedia describes the meaning of the pattern as follows:
KWANG-GAE is named after the famous Kwang-Gae-Toh-Wang, the 19th King of the Koguryo Dynasty, who regained all the lost territories including the greater part of Manchuria. The diagram represents the expansion and recovery of lost territory. The 39 movements refer to the first two figures of 391 A. D, the year he came to the throne.
Although the number of movements refer to the year he came to the thrown, it could also possibly refer to his death. He died at age 39. He was 17 when he became king and reigned for 22 years.

There are only two Korean kings called "Great King," they are Great King Gwang-Gae To and Great King Sejong, the latter commissioned the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, which brought literacy to the masses.

Gwang-Gae To 廣開土 is his posthumous name. Its meaning has to do with expansion of territory. Based on the Chinese (Hanja) characters, the first syllable () in his posthumous name means broad or wide. The second character () means to open something or to start something (e.g. start a project). Finally, the last character () refers to soil or earth. During his life time Great King Gwang-Gae To was known as King Yeong-Nak (영낙) the Great. Since I couldn't find the Chinese characters in which his renal name is based, I cannot look up the meaning of it. His birth name was Go Damdeok (Korean: 고담덕 / Hanja: 高談德). His family name, Go, means high or lofty and is the same first syllable in Goguryeo, the ancient Korean kingdom he inherited and expanded. His name Dam-deok literally means "talk-virtue." Personally I like his birth name better as it reflects the virtuous or ethical nature of Great King Gwang-Gae's governance. Even though he regained lost territory and expanded the Goguryeo borders deep into Manchuria, he did not force his personal culture onto the many different tribes and people that came under his reign -- he allowed them to "maintain [their] own lifestyle, customs, religion and values" (Yun Myeon-Cheol).

"The Gwang Gae To Steel" Source
Much of what we know about Great King Gwang-Gae To comes from the Gwang-Gae To Stele, a giant stone inscribed with classical Chinese characters. The a stele is a granite obelisk, about seven meters tall. It was erected by Gwang-Gae To's son, King Jangsu. The stele is on the border of China and North Korea. There is a copy of the stele at the South Korea's National War Museum in Seoul.

Read more about Great King Gwang-Gae To.

The pattern is quite interesting. It has a very unique feel about it. Many of the movements are performed in slow motion. There are also many motions that move in wide elliptical paths. For instance, the first movement, the Heaven Hand to Close Ready Stance B position, traces an elliptical path in the air. 

To me it looks like the motions symbolize both gathering (regaining lost territory) and expansion. The slow motions may refer to his patient and strategic character, followed by strong decisive techniques, like the various stomping motions in the pattern, depicting his effective military action. Kwang-Gae Teul is definitely a pattern that requires careful study. It is one of the patterns that reflects the hard-soft nature of ITF Taekwon-Do excellently.

10 May 2011

Sine Wave and Motion

I realised that I've never actually properly explained the basic understanding of the sine wave motion on this blog. I've always assumed that readers of this blog know what I'm talking about and from there move onto a deeper interpretation of the sine wave motion. So, herewith, the sine wave motion as it is typically understood by most ITF practitioners. The following is something I wrote many years ago and is part of the Soo Shim Kwan handbook. (My understanding of the sine wave motion has evolved since I originally wrote this.)

Sine Wave and Motion

By Sanko Lewis with references to the ITF Encyclopaedia and the essay: “Pattern Speeds and Sinewave Study” by Paul McPhail (VI Dan) – www.itfnz.org.nz (2004).

The sinewave-motion is a method of power generation utilized by ITF Taekwon-Do. The obvious purpose of sinewave is to lift the body mass, thereby increasing potential energy and then converting the stored energy into kinetic energy by dropping the body mass into the technique. Taekwon-Do techniques, therefore, usually work in a natural partnership with gravity.

The above description only explains the last half of the total sinewave-motion. A full sinewave-motion involves that the body is first relaxed (dropped) prior to the raising and dropping of the body mass.

The aim of this initial part of the sinewave-motion is to consciously relax the muscles. Following below is a list of reasons why relaxing is advocated:

  • In a stressed environment the musculature have a tendency to tense up. Relaxed muscles are faster and more reflexive than tensed muscles.
  • Naturally bending the limbs, specifically the legs, allow for better thrust.
  • Lowering the centre of gravity contributes to a balanced initial foundation from where the technique can commence.
  • Relaxing the muscles reduce the unnecessary use of energy.
  • Muscle cells uses up ATP-energy when active. Cells only need a short time of relaxation to produce ATP.
  • Relaxed muscles ensure smooth graceful motion.
  • Conscious relaxation helps to focus the mind on the task at hand; mentally preparing for attack or defence.

“The relaxation desired is relaxation of muscles, rather than of the mind or attention.” – Bruce Lee.

At the beginning of the sinewave-motion the body is relaxed, the limbs slightly bent and the mind focussed.

The middle part of the sinewave-motion, when the body mass is raised, usually coincide with the backward-motion referred to in the Training Secrets of Taekwon-Do. The raising of the body mass is achieved by raising the hip as suggested in the Theory of Power – Mass.

As for the last part of the sinewave-motion, the body mass is not merely dropped down, but is usually accelerated down at the end of the sinewave-motion. This is achieved by utilizing the knee-spring action and by jerking the hip (rotating the waist) in the direction of the attacking or blocking tool as described in the Theory of Power – Mass. (There are some exceptions.) Power should be unleashed gradually throughout the sinewave-motion and must achieve maximum acceleration during this last part, specifically at the point of contact with the opponent’s body. Every muscle of the body must be concentrated towards the appropriate tool at the proper time. (Refer to the Theory of Power – Concentration.)

The down-up-down motion of sinewave should always be performed smoothly like a wave in water. The motion is never performed jerkily (saw-tooth motion) as this will in fact reduce accumulated momentum.

  • Full sine wave motion requires that the body is relaxed (down); the mass is then raised (up); and completed by finally dropping the body mass into the technique (down). This down-up-down motion completes one movement / technique with full sinewave. 
  • 2/3 sine wave motion means that upon completion of the first movement, the practitioner immediately moves up and then drops the body mass down to complete the next movement (up-down). 
  • 1/3 sine wave motion means you are already up at the completion of the first movement and only drops down into the next movement (down).

Fundamental movements (e.g. in patterns) may also be described according to the particular speed, tempo-quality of the technique, the method of breathing used, and attitude of the performer.

  • Normal motion is the speed and tempo at which individual movements / techniques are normally performed in patterns; with the usual characteristically short-sharp exhalation (normal Taekwon-Do breathing) and full sine wave motion.
  • Slow motion movement is performed slowly with slow breathing. This is used to emphasize an important movement and to check balance and control. The tempo of slow motion is about four times that of normal motion. The attitude is that of focus and concentration.
  • Fast motion is performed urgently and aggressively with normal breathing, i.e. one short sharp exhalation for every technique. Fast motion is nearly always attacks, usually two punches. The sinewave is cut short; springing straight from the first movement into the next.
  • Continuous motion links movements together with no pause between the end of one movement and the start of the next. Inhale once at the beginning of the series of movements and exhale in a continuous flow of air but emphasizing each movement. Try to link the movements smoothly, with grace and beauty. Continuous movements nearly always start with a defensive (blocking) technique. 
  • Connecting motion joins two movements with one breath and one sinewave. Connecting motion is always performed with two movements using opposite arms. 

Totally Tae Kwon Do

For this month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #27) I submitted an article based on an earlier post here regarding the double forearm block. It starts on p. 37. Of all the contributions I have made to Totally Tae Kwon Do this article was received the least favourable. Actually, this is the only one that I've been made aware of actual disagreement. It leaves me with three possible conclusions. First, my article was misunderstood, which means I did not communicate clearly enough. Second, I'm wrong. Third, there are different ways of doing the double forearm block (i.e. different angles that it reaches its target), resulting in different understandings of the technique, with my understanding being incompatible with the understanding of someone doing the technique differently.

At present I'm thinking it is the first option -- I'm misunderstood. From what I've read so far, it is thought that I believe the extra arm brings more force to the technique; which is not my opinion at all. I pertinently said that:
"Bringing the other arm forward with the double forearm block does not contribute substantially to the force of the technique." 
My view is not that the arm brought forward adds to the force, rather that the angle at which the block intercepts the attack is what makes it a stronger block.

In any case, the second option, i.e. that I'm wrong, is also possible. Read the article and decide for yourself.

This month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do features the final instalment of Kanghan Jangshin Kwanjangnim Tristian Vardy's series on children's physiology and Taekwon-Do. The conclusion of his four-part article is also a farewell in a sense, as Sabeominm Vardy is leaving South Africa and relocating to Australia. The Soo Shim Kwan wishes him and his family all the best.

I also liked the interview Mr Stuart Anslow did with Grandmaster Kim Bok-Man. The interview reaffirmed my insistence of the definite influence of Taekkyeon on ITF Taekwon-Do. While Grandmaster Kim Bok-Man disagreed with sine wave motion, he does affirm the influence of Taekkyeon on Taekwon-Do.

05 May 2011

Sine Wave Zen

Image Source

"The flea who falls must jump; the flea who jumps must fall."
-- Alan Watts, Way of Zen

04 May 2011

Chanyang's Full Body Stretching Routine

In the following two part video, my dongsaeng Ok Chanyang takes us through a full body twenty minute stretching routine. The routine is excellent for martial artists, especially on those days that you are not training or as a part of a thorough warm-up or cool-down before or after a long and taxing training session.

01 May 2011

Should One Always Move This Way?

This morning I had a dream in which I was speaking at a seminar of sorts, talking about the basic way of moving in (ITF) Taekwon-Do. An attendee interrupted and asked if one should “always move this way.” His question was if one should always—under all circumstances, including during a violent self-defence encounter—move in this 'traditional' way one would move like when you do your fundamental movements, for instance when doing patterns. Implicit to his question was another question: “If not, why do you practise moving in this—traditional—way at all?” My immediate response was something along the lines of “Ideally 'yes', but most likely 'no'” and then as I continued to explain my answer I woke up. While in bed I continued for a few moments to think about what the rest of my answer would involve. Following is some of that answer:

Two Schools of Thought

There are two schools of thought in traditional martial arts regarding the actual use of traditional techniques (what we in Taekwon-Do call fundamental movements) in actual fighting. The one school says that one should practise such traditional techniques ceaselessly until you are able to perform them perfectly in the traditional way under all circumstances. The goal is to become so perfect and reflexive at performing your traditional techniques that they can actually function and look in a real fight, in exactly the way they do when you do patterns or fundamental technique line drills or prearranged sparring. The other school says that traditional techniques are ideals. We should strive towards them, but like any ideal, it is unlikely to achieve them all the time, in all circumstances. These ideals are the most powerful and stable ways to perform such a technique and that when we are in an actual fight, we will try to emulate the ideal as close as the chaos of a real fight allows, but at the same time adapting traditional techniques to make them “street” or “chaos” friendly. The first school of thought aims at perfection all the time, every time, and is quite inflexible in how the techniques are performed. The second school strives towards the ideal, but because perfection is unlikely, they are more flexible in the application of the techniques.

I adhere to the second school of thought. This relates back to a previous post in which I argued that in practise, Taekwon-Do is a martial art based on scientific principles, not a science per se. It is not a science per se because to do something that is scientifically accurately predictable requires you to be in a closed chaos-free environment. We can achieve something like that in the dojang, but not in real life.

The first school of thought I described above and the scientific view of Taekwon-Do are basically the same. They espouse the view that there is a perfect way to perform a technique, which we can test scientifically, and this perfect way is the fundamental movements. Like any scientific hypothesis this can be tested in a laboratory and the results will be the same around the world. I like the idea, and a part of me wish for this view to be feasible, but I am not convinced that this view of Taekwon-Do can be sustained.

All People Are Not the Same

Giant Choi Hong-Man (right), definitely does not fit the
stereotype that Koreans have shorter limbs than Caucasians.
Firstly, to sustain this view by scientific experiment, all the variables need to be the same. Unfortunately, that is simply not possible because people are not the same. I've been working and training in Korea for a couple of years now and can without a doubt say that the typical body of a Korean and the typical body of a Caucasian is not the same. Typically Caucasians have relatively longer limbs than Koreans. This means that the relative musculature of Koreans in their arms and legs are shorter to those of Caucasians. Immediately this will affect a number of technical aspects, for instance the stances of Koreans versus the stances of Caucasians. In Taekwon-Do we determine the stance width and length in relation to shoulder width. Because Koreans have shorter limbs, their stances will need to be longer than those of Caucasians who have longer limbs. Furthermore, a person's shoulder width can change. If you do lots of shoulder exercises you can build up the girth of your shoulders, while shoulder exercises will not do anything to the length of your legs. Wider shoulders would require you to adapt your stances (make them wider and longer), even though your legs are still of the same proportion. Clearly a one-size-fits-all attitude is impractical. To say that all people should have the walking stance exactly shoulder width wide is to apply criteria according to a “perfect specimen” and expecting everybody to conform to that mould. Not only is this impossible, it may even have the opposite that desired effect—my trying to adapt to a mould that is not taking into account my unique musculature and genetic make-up is likely to reduce the efficiency of my technique.

A much better attitude would be the second view that espouses the existence of an ideal, rather than a perfection. Being conscious of an ideal, one can work towards it, and try to find “your own ideal,” one that takes into account your own body shape, musculature make-up, genetic characteristics, etc. Instead of attempting to mould yourself according to a one-size-fits-all, it is much better to accept the fundamental movements as ideal approximations that you apply to your own ideal, which is slightly different from other people.

All Fights Are Not the Same

Secondly, and returning to the first school of thought: because the fundamental techniques assume a “perfect” type of combative encounter, they are too narrowly focussed. For instance, practically all the fundamental movement attacks (as we perform them in the patterns and in fundamental movement line drills) are targeted at only three targets. For high-section it is the philtrum; for middle-section the solar plexus; for low section it is the navel or pubic bone—and all of them to an opponent of your own relative size. The problem with this is obvious. The likelihood of being attacked by someone exactly your own size is slim. Furthermore, the likelihood of you always being positioned to hit the philtrum, solar plexus and navel, is also slim. Instead, in the dynamic environment of an actual fight you will find that your targets are much more varied and at all kinds of different heights—a magnitude of different heights that you did not practise for, because the fundamentals practise almost exclusively only three distinct heights.

The second school of thought believes that techniques are to be made “street friendly,” adapted to the situation. While those three specific heights might be a perfectly good target if your opponent happened to be exactly your size, this is seldom the case. Instead, a new ideal should be strived for that is better equipped for your current opponent. There is therefore freedom to adapt your technique at leisure—not only on the streets, but even in the dojang.

All Attackers Are Not the Same

Thirdly, the first school of thought, which requires techniques to be done in the traditional way, assume a certain type of attacker and certain types of attacks. I explained the problem with this in a previous essay: “Why I Don't Like Your Self-Defence.” People in this first school of thought tend to become very good at fighting very specific types of opponents—opponents that look very much like themselves. This is a regular problem among traditional martial styles that become experts at fighting within the confines of their own systems, but lacks the versatility to adapt to wholly different types of opponents.

The second school of thought, on the other hand, likes to spice things up: sparring sessions are varied, not just tournament rules; self-defence practise involves opponents doing likely (street) attacks, rather than traditional attacks; practise are not only confined to the controlled environment of the dojang, but also taken into the outside world; and so on.

Not Paint-By-Numbers

One can think of the first school of thought as a paint-by-numbers approach, where the principle is provided with a pallet of colours and told exactly how to apply each colour. It creates a very crisp and clear final painting, but it is a picture that lacks realism. The second school of thought provides the principle with the same pallet of colours, but is much less prescriptive in how to apply the colours. In fact, the principle is free to even mix the colours on the pallet and come up with new colours. The final painting is unlikely to look as crisp and clear as the paint-by-numbers picture, but what it lacks in crispness, it makes up for in authenticity. The second school of thought uses the fundamental movements as a base and then adapt them freely for different scenarios. The first is a rigid scientific approach that lacks in the flexibility required in a real combatic encounter; the second is an artistic approach that is free to improvise according to the scenario.