29 June 2011

First Degree—Expert or Novice?

As a senior black belt (4th degree) at 'The Way' (the ITF dojang in Seoul), I teach ITF Taekwon-Do and some Hapkido at least once a week, sometimes twice a week, to a mixed group of ranks, including some first degree black belts.

One thing I have heard from some of the black belts attending my classes is that they sometimes feel like white belts again. I'm recounting this, not to blow my own horn, but to make two other points: black belts are not necessarily experts and we are all still learning.

General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of Taekwon-Do and author of the ITF Encyclopaedia, was quite clear about the fact that the first degree black belt is still but a novice:

First Degree—Expert or Novice?

One of the greatest misconceptions within the martial arts is the notion that all black belt holders are experts. It is understandable that those unacquainted with the martial arts might make this equation. However, students should certainly recognize that this is not always the case. Too often, novice black belt holders advertise themselves as experts and eventually even convince themselves.

The first degree black belt holder has usually learned enough technique to defend himself against a single opponent. He can be compared to a fledgeling who has acquired enough feathers to leave the nest and fend for himself. The first degree is a starting point. The student has merely built a foundation. The job of building the house lies ahead.

The novice black belt holder will now really begin to learn technique. Now that he has mastered the alphabet, he can begin to read. Years of hard work and study await him before he can even begin to consider himself an instructor and expert.

A perceptive student will, at this stage, suddenly realize how very little he knows.

The black belt holder also enters a new era of responsibility. Though a freshman, he has entered a strong honorable fraternity of the black belt holders of the entire world; and his actions inside and outside the training hall will be carefully scrutinized. His conduct will reflect on all black belt holders and he must constantly strive to set up an example for all grader holders.

Some will certainly advance into the expert stages. However, far too many will believe the misconception and will remain in novice, mentally and technically.

ITF Encyclopaedia, Volume 1: p. 94, 95.

In my years as an instructor, one especially unfortunate thing I've noticed with some black belts is a type of thinking-they-know-it-all attitude. While the instructor is teaching a particular technique, this black belt will do another technique he or she thinks to be a better variation or will teach his or her training partner another application. Not only does it deprive the training partner the opportunity to study the techniques the instructor intends for their growth, it also deprives themselves the opportunity of rehearsing the 'basics' and having the instructor tweak their technique. The black belt may think that they are so familiar with the technique, that they have perfected it, that they need not practise it. As a 4th Dan black belt I can honestly say that I still benefit from a senior instructor checking my fundamental movements and would be very reluctant to claim to have attained perfection of a particular technique.

To really learn, we need to put our pride on a shelf and open ourselves to the possibility that we do not know everything; for only the humble can be taught. The moment you think you 'know it', is the moment you stopped yourself from learning and improving that particular skill.

Also Read: "Allowing Rank to Simplify Our World" by Joong Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do.

28 June 2011

Balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do and the Taekkyeon Connection

Balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do, just like the sine wave motion, did not develop out of nowhere. In my mind there is a definite root from which both these ideas came and I believe that root is to be found in Taekkyeon. If Shotokan Karate is the source for the hard techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do, then Taekkyeon is, at least in part¹, the base for the soft techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do.

In the video clip below, from BBC Three's Mind, Body & Kick Ass Moves, Taekkyeon Grandmaster Do Gi-Hyun talks about the differences in motion between Japanese hard styles, Chinese soft styles, and traditional Korean styles. Yes, these are generalizations, but notice when he demonstrates Korean styles that he is in fact doing a balgyeong motion. (You can see it from around 2:05 to 2:25.)

I have spoken to Grandmaster Do about the fact that ITF Taekwon-Do has much in common with Taekkyeon. He wasn't too open to the possibility and I do not blame him. WTF Taekwon-Do is adamantly claiming a lineage from Taekkyeon, but when one looks at WTF Taekwon-Do’s fundamental movements it doesn’t resemble Taekkyeon at all. WTF Taekwon-Do is too Karatesque for such a claim to be taken seriously. However, the “bounciness” of ITF Taekwon-Do is in my opinion very Taekkyeon-like and having practiced Taekkyeon I’ve become convinced that this is the origin of the sine wave motion. Grandmaster Choi Hong-Hi, ITF Taekwon-Do's principle founder, trained somewhat in Taekkyeon as an adolescent under his calligraphy master. It seems like these early experiences started to seep back into ITF Taekwon-Do during its later development. Apart from the “bounciness” we share with Taekkyeon, there is also a shared “relaxation” and “subtleness.” While the focus in Karate is in speed, the focus in ITF Taekwon-Do is not speed as such, but acceleration—moving from a relaxed stillness and the accelerating into an explosive snap, and back to being completely relaxed again.

So when I claim that ITF Taekwon-Do contains balgyeong, i.e. fajin, I do not mean that ITF Taekwon-Do was directly influenced by Chinese internal martial arts like Tai Chi Quan or even that the balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do is exactly the same as the fajin in Tai Chi Quan or Hsing-I Quan. Yes, I claim a commonality, but not a shared root. ITF Taekwon-Do is definitely not the same as Tai Chi Quan or the same as Hsing-I Quan; still, there are things that they share. That Taekkyeon (and by implication ITF Taekwon-Do) and Tai Chi Quan should share the same type of motion should not be considered odd. Many disparate martial arts have overlapping principles and techniques. It is quite foreseeable that Judo, Samo and Greco-Roman wrestling may all have a couple of shared principles and techniques, even though they developed in different parts of the world. There is only so many ways in which we can use the human body; therefore it is inevitable that cultures from around the world should come to similar conclusions. The bow and arrow was used by the Native Americans, ancient Japanese, and Southern Africa's Bushmen—this weapon presumably developed independently and although they may not look exactly the same in these three societies, the mechanics is pretty much exact. Similarly, the fact that we see balgyeong in Korea's Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do, in China's Tai Chi Quan and Hsing-I Quan, and Russia's Systema, all with presumably different origins, is not too surprising. What is surprising is that the West hasn't made more of this concept, but that is fodder for another post.


1. I say “in part,” because besides the Taekkyeon root, Taekwon-Do had some other influences as well in its early development. For instance, Master George Vitale (8th Dan)—one of the foremost Taekwon-Do historians—told me that in its early days Taekwon-Do was exposed to such soft styles as Judo and Hapkido. Be that as it may, it is my conviction that our balgyeong motions germinated from the Taekkyeon connection.

24 June 2011

My Hapkido "Way"

Last night, 23 June 2011, I received my 2nd Dan Hapkido Certificate. Ironically, it was exactly one year ago that I officially “quit” formal training at a hapkidojang and wrote the post below on one of my other blogs.
23 June 2010
Myself and one of the instructors at my previous hapkidojang.
Earlier this evening I went to see the Head of the Hapkido gym where I have been training since I came to Korea the first time. I went to tell him that I am discontinuing my regular training at his school and that I will instead continue my training in Hapkido on occasion with instructors irregularly, most likely over weekends. After explaining it to him, getting my black belt from where it hung between the other black belts, bowing to him and the other members in the dojang, and giving my final salute, I left the gym; feeling overwhelmingly sad. I have “outgrown” that school and the only way for me to progress is to leave it.

It is not that I have learned everything that that school and the master can teach me—far from it! There is still much I can learn. It is just that the ratio between what I am learning (and the rate at which I’m learning it) to the time, effort, and money I'm investing is not worth it for me at the present moment. I guess the language barrier has become a big contributing factor towards my decision. There is only so much one can learn via the monkey-see-monkey-do method. I've long passed that level in my martial art career. I am truly sad about leaving. This dojang was my very first and longest lasting martial art “home” in Korea. To tell my instructor that I’m leaving home is similar to a young bird leaving its nest. It is frightening. But it is also necessary because only outside the nest can the bird really mature. I’m not cutting all ties with the dojang; I will still visit there every so often; but for now, the bird has left the nest.

The moment I stepped out of the dojang, knowing that I’ve chosen a new path for my Hapkido-journey, I felt immediately homesick. I walked to a restaurant to have dinner, but had lost my appetite. When my food arrived I let it stand—pretending to let it cool off—for probably a quarter of an hour before I started to eat. While the decision caused melancholy, I am not regretting it. Another Hapkido instructor (and also a close friend) explained to me that there comes a time in every Hapkido practitioner’s journey that he has to find his own Do – “Way.”

When I arrived home tonight and read my emails, I saw a notice from a bookshop informing me that a Hapkido book I ordered had arrived. I’ll go pick it up tomorrow.

And now a year later. My Hapkido journey did not end. Although I have been studying Hapkido mostly informally since last year, there has nevertheless been growth. I've been reading books, watching instructional videos, applying principles, practised and even taught some Hapkido at The Way dojang.
I've learned so much from Hapkido. Ironically, I've learned so much about ITF Taekwon-Do from my study of other martial arts, especially Hapkido. I remember clearly before I came to Korea in 2006 the frustration I felt because I could see the Wave / Circle principle in ITF Taekwon-Do, I could intuit it, but I had no functional cognitive entry point to truly understand it, nor its application. I knew that I had to study a martial art that focusses on this principle and was eager to start studying Hapkido once I came to Korea. And as providence would have it, not only did I find a nice dojang to train at, but one of the instructors was also a 4th Dan in ITF Taekwon-Do and we could discuss Hapkido using our common ITF Taekwon-Do language. I am convinced that both my Taekwon-Do and Hapkido training were enhanced by this. I also gained a great friend in the proses.

I've been eligible (time-wise) to test for 2nd Dan probably since early 2009, but only got to it earlier this year. Honestly, it wasn't really something I actively thought about until Master Bae (7th Dan) mentioned to me last year that I ought to do it. Because of my suspension of formal training last year I did not think about it again until a few months ago. 

I feel that now a new phase in my Hapkido journey has started once again. Part of it is to once more find the next part of my Do (“Way”). Will it involve the path I'm on at present? Will it involve seeking out new teachers and a new dojang? Will it involve more actively teaching Hapkido?

22 June 2011

Is Balgyeong a Valuable Contribution to ITF Taekwon-Do?

Over the last couple of weeks I published several posts on the topic of balgyeong 발경/ fajin 發勁 in ITF Taekwon-Do. I argued that ITF Taekwon-Do has evolved to include this way of power generation that is usually associated with Chinese internal styles like Hsing-I Quan and Tai Chi Quan. What I did not discuss is whether this is a good thing or not. Is this “new” way of applying the Theory of Power in certain ITF Taekwon-Do techniques advantageous? Is it a valuable contribution to the style? Is it better to hit like a crowbar or hit like a ball-on-chain? In this post I want to explore some of these questions?

In order to compare and discuss these two methods I will call the first momentum techniques and the second balgyeong or impulse techniques.

Since the inception of the Theory of Power, ITF Taekwon-Do techniques focussed on momentum. Speaking of “momentum” I'm really speaking about Force, in the classical mechanics sense, where Force is the product of mass and acceleration: F = m x a. The idea is to “accelerate as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique,” as I explained in a previous post on power generation in Taekwon-Do. Almost every technique pushes / breaks / drives through the target like a locomotive through an obstacle. Probably the place where one can truly see this in action is in power-breaking. Look, for instance, at the power-breaking demonstration in the video below. Notice how the techniques drive through the target, continuing past the moment of impact—fulfilling the martial art saying to “aim behind the [surface of the[ target” or “strike through the target.”

The effectiveness of these techniques are undeniable.

Balgyeong techniques work differently, although the idea of using momentum is still apt. In balgyeong the momentum is accelerated and then transferred into the target, instead of driven through the target. The preparatory position or “pull back” that is needed for greater acceleration (the greater the distance, the more time there is for acceleration) is usually far less in balgyeong techniques. Acceleration in balgyeong is achieved through kinetic chaining instead. Glen Levy shows off his balgyeong / fajin strikes in the video below.

Finding good examples online of balgyeong / fajin power-breaking is very difficult, in part because it is very difficult to break things with balgyeong. One might therefore be tempted to think that since balgyeong cannot break bricks as easily as momentum techniques can, that balgyeong is therefore inferior. This is a bad assumption, in part because balgyeong is not meant for breaking objects. To break something you have to push against an object with continued pressure until its structural integrity gives way and it snaps. Balgyeong does not work like that. A balgyeong technique transfer energy into the target, not through the target.

"WTF Chest Protector"
Image Source
To explain the difference, allow the following personal anecdote. The first time I realised that there is actually a difference in power transference in ITF Taekwon-Do was in 2004, when a student brought a WTF chest protector to class one evening. One student named Almero, quite a big guy (or at least taller and heavier than myself), was excited because now his instructor (i.e. me) could kick him full power and he could get a sense of the power of the techniques. I first kicked him with a side piercing kick. He stumbled a couple meters backward and fell on his back near the other side of the room. We were both impressed. Next up was a turning kick. I positioned. And kicked. Almero did not move back at all. Instead, he dropped down right where he stood. Unlike the side piercing kick that pushed him back (continuing the momentum of the technique), with the turning kick the force did not go through him, but into him (as an impulse of energy). While the side piercing kick looked much more impressive, the turning kick dropped Almero where he stood even through the thick chest protector. Once he regained his energy, he did not want to “play” any more.

You can practise these two methods on a punching / kicking bag. Some techniques will push the bag, so that it swings back forcefully. These are momentum techniques. Other techniques, if done with balgyeong, will not make the bag swing much; instead the bag will shudder as the force is transferred as an impulse into the bag.

So how do these two methods translate when applied on a human being? Well, the momentum technique will usually push the opponent back. If you do the technique with great acceleration, then the technique may actually break the bones of the opponent, for instance breaking his ribs or other bones—something I've experienced personally. A balgyeong technique, on the other hand, will not push the opponent back that much and is unlikely to break bones. Rather, the force goes into the opponent as an impulse of energy causing internal trauma. Instead of breaking bones, a balgyeong technique could harm the internal organs, for instance a blow to the chest could possibly cause cardiac arrest. Balgyeong techniques are also more likely to shock the nervous system; that is why so many people whom have experienced a balgyeong strike say that they suddenly feel weak, as if all their energy has been drained from them.

The question which is better, momentum techniques or balgyeong techniques, being hit with a crowbar or with a ball-on-chain, is a bad question. It's comparing apples with oranges. The real question should be: “What do you hope to achieve with the technique?” Momentum techniques and balgyeong / impulse techniques are different methods of transferring energy, with different results. Depending on the desired result, one would choose the appropriate method. Regarding the question if balgyeong is a valuable contribution to the style I would answer “yes.” It gives the ITF Taekwon-Do practitioner more options and a greater arsenal of techniques. While momentum techniques were very effective within Taekwon-Do's original context as a military martial art, I think balgyeong techniques bring value to Taekwon-Do in its new context as a system for civilian defence. (Read more about "civilian defence systems" here.)

21 June 2011

Why We Don't See More Balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do

I think I'm slowly coming to the end of this series of posts regarding balgyeong 발경/ fajin 發勁 in ITF Taekwon-Do. I envision, maybe, two more posts on the topic.

In the previous two posts (see here and here) on balgyeong I argued that ITF Taekwon-Do has evolved to include this other method of doing techniques, that's different from the methodology it inherited from Shotokan Karate and I'm not talking about the sine wave motion, although relaxation and the wave principle that the sine wave motion requires were probably the catalyst for doing certain techniques the balgyeong way. If it is true, as I argue, that balgyeong has become part of ITF Taekwon-Do, then why don't we see more of it? Following I propose answers to this question.

"Reverse Turning Kick" -- Image Source
"Ridge Hand Front Strike" -- Image Source
The first reason we do not see balgyeong often is, as I have mentioned in a previous post, not all Taekwon-Do techniques lend themselves to balgyeong. To perform balgyeong the technique is zapped towards the target and immediately upon contact one removes your whole bodily structure. The idea is that if your body keeps contact with the opponent, some of the rebound force will return back into your body. In order to prevent this from happening you quickly withdraw your weapon (attacking tool), so that the force generated is transferred into the target as a pulse of energy. That is why balgyeong strikes are sometimes called “impulse” or “impact” strikes. With some Taekwon-Do techniques it is almost impossible to quickly withdraw your attacking tool in the way that balgyeong requires. An example of such a technique that does not lend itself to balgyeong is the spinning reverse turning kick. Done in the traditional way, the reverse turning kick hits the target with the leg fully extended, swinging through the target. Another example is the ridge hand front strike where the arm is also extended in such a way that a quick recoil after it hits the target is not possible. Both these techniques hit their targets like a crowbar, rather than a ball-on-chain. There are many such Taekwon-Do techniques that just do not function properly as balgyeong techniques and, I believe, forcing a balgyeong methodology onto them may actually detract from the efficiency of these techniques.

"Sine Wave Movement" -- Image Source
There is, however, a large percentage of the Taekwon-Do arsenal for which the balgyeong methodology does make sense. Unfortunately, and this brings us to the second reason we do not see that much balgyeong, is that it is a relatively recent development in ITF Taekwon-Do. I assume that it is something that developed either in tandem or maybe shortly after the newer version of the sine wave motion. As I mentioned earlier, both the sine wave motion and balgyeong share two base elements: relaxation and the wave principle. The sine wave motion is often misunderstood or understood superficially and therefore shunned—even by portions of the ITF community. The same could be true for balgyeong. In fact, balgyeong is probably even less understood because at least the sine wave motion is labelled and has an associated vocabulary. This is not the case for balgyeong. I have understood conceptually and practised balgyeong for quite some time, but until recently I've never actually known what to call it. I had to borrow Chinese internal martial art terminology (e.g. fajin) to describe it. Even though the ingredients for balgyeong are all mentioned (in separate places) in the ITF Encyclopaedia, the actual concept is never distinctly labelled or explained. It will therefore take some time still before the majority of ITF players around the world are familiar with it, although quite a number already apply it. And I'm sure, were I to explain the concept to ITF practitioners, many of them would tell me they understand what I'm talking about and that they are, in fact, applying it. (Try it: explain it to your fellow ITF practitioners and hear their response. I'll be curious to find out.)

A further reason why balgyeong is not readily seen is because of tournaments and particularly the influence of the pattern category. Patterns are considered by many one of the ultimate estimates of skill in Taekwon-Do. It receives a very important place in ITF Taekwon-Do competitions. Unfortunately sport has a way of corrupting the essence of a martial art. I've discussed the issue I have with tournaments before (see for instance here, here, and here), but these were specifically in relation to the negative effects of tournament sparring. I feel similarly about the negative effects of tournament patterns.

"Walking Stance Front Punch" -- Image Source
The pattern player has it as his or her goal to impress the judges. While it is true that patterns have an aesthetic quality, this aspect of the pattern is especially amplified during tournaments. For instance, kicks that are to be performed at middle height are often performed at high section. This is, of course, to show off the practitioners balance, flexibility and leg strength; however, it is technically “wrong” as the original directions for the pattern requires a middle kick, not a high kick. At tournaments such errors are often overlooked. Another thing that tournament patterns promote is to momentarily pause the attacking or blocking tool at the point of impact. This is to help the judges clearly see the exact point of impact; yet at the cost of the correctness of the technique. Take the simple punch as case in point. The ITF Encyclopaedia clearly states that the muscles should be relaxed “immediately after the fist has reached the target” (Vol. 3, p. 29) and that the “moment the attacking tool reaches the target, pull it back . . .” (Vol. 3, p. 17). If these maxims were followed, the typical ITF Taekwon-Do punch would typify balgyeong, but this is not how punches are generally performed, especially not in tournament patterns. Instead, the arms are momentarily paused in the fully extended punching position. The emphasis on tournament patterns ingrain a non-balgyeong methodology—not only by senior practitioners, but also by the onlookers who are often younger or lower ranking practitioners who in turn emulate this “wrong¹” methodology.

Doing punches (and other techniques) “wrongly” in patterns need not be the norm as it is now. An example where a technique is quickly retracted after impact with the target is the front snap kick. The reason it is performed this way is because the ITF Encyclopaedia admonishes that the “kicking foot must be withdrawn immediately after the kick” (Vol 4. p. 41). As we have noted earlier, practically the same is advised for the punch; however it has become the expected norm to withdraw the front snap kick in patterns, but not the norm for punches. You can see this in the video below where an excellent pattern practitioner, Sabeomnim Jaroslaw Suska (5th Dan), performs the pattern Kwang Gae. Start watching from around 1:14. Notice how he does the front snap kick, compared with how he does the front punch.

This is an excellent pattern for tournament purposes; however, there is a technical inconsistency. What we ought to see after a punch is the musculature of the arm immediately relaxing, leaving the arm slightly bend and the attacking tool (the fist) withdrawn from the point of impact, i.e. the imagined target. Therefore, because punches are often done “wrongly” (for tournament purposes), techniques such as the punch that could be performed with balgyeong are frequently performed without balgyeong. The punch is just one example of many such techniques; for instance back fist strikes, some knife-hand strikes, some blocks, and so on.

To conclude, balgyeong is not the only way we apply the Theory of Power in techniques. Also, not all techniques necessarily benefit from balgyeong, nor do the mechanics of all techniques lend themselves to proper execution of balgyeong. Furthermore, balgyeong is not yet well understood worldwide, and therefore not a fully incorporated methodology in ITF Taekwon-Do everywhere. Moreover, one of the main opportunities to witness balgyeong is in patterns, but unfortunately patterns are often practised for tournament purposes which erroneously require the practitioner to momentarily pause the technique at the supposed moment of impact, which is contrary to correct application of balgyeong that requires the immediate relaxation and withdrawal of the attacking or blocking tool instantly after impact. For these reasons, even though I have argued that balgyeong is part of ITF Taekwon-Do, we do not see it practised that often.


1.) I write “wrong” in quotation marks, because the actual erroneousness of the technique is relative. It depends on what you hope to achieve with the technique. There are times when one may wish to perform a technique without balgyeong, depending on the desired result. Theoretically a balgyeong technique causes more internal damage, while a non-balgyeong technique causes more topical damage.

Regarding this “wrong” way of doing patterns, I must admit that I am often guilty of it myself and, worse, even teaching it at times. The problem is that since this is the expected norm in tournaments, practitioners that perform outside of the norm cannot compete with those that adhere to the expected norm. Students wanting help with their patterns for tournament purposes I help with this in mind.

17 June 2011

Balgyeong and Gi/Chi/Ki/Qi in ITF Taekwon-Do

In my previous post I established that ITF Taekwon-Do also apply the principle of balgyeong 발경, known in the Chinese internal martial arts as fajin 發勁. This has not always been the case; in its early history Taekwon-Do resembled Shotokan Karate and had little kungfu-like qualities. This changed as ITF Taekwon-Do became much more relaxed in its motions with an emphasis on kinetic chaining and dropping the body weight. And while I believe balgyeong is part of ITF Taekwon-Do, it is not used across the board; some techniques do not lend themselves to the mechanics of balgyeong. There therefore seems to be two types of techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do: those that employ balgyeong; and those that do not. (I'm yet to build up an effective vocabulary to describe the two adequately.)

My discussion of balgyeong has so far been a very mechanistic one and it is possible that I'm neglecting an important part of it. Inherent to balgyeong / fajin, according to the internal martial arts, is the concept of Gi¹—also referred to as Ki, Qi or Chi. Because it is pronounced “ghee” /기/ in Korean, I will adopt the term Gi henceforth even though the ITF Encyclopaedia has rendered it “Ki.” Some traditional stylist say that one need not concern oneself with such esoteric abstractions as Gi to understand balgyeong / fajin. Dan Djurdjevic, for instance, feels that the idea of Gi was developed as part of a “pre-scientific paradigm,” which have become void now that we have a better paradigm (Newtonian physics) to explain the transfer of energy with. So for some internal martial art practitioners it is possible to understand balgyeong / fajin without going into abstruse discussions of ethereal energies. One gets an almost similar sentiment from the ITF Encyclopeadia, which has very little to say about the topic. The actual term Gi (“Ki”) receives no mention in the Theory of Power or Training Secrets. While it may be implied, as we will see later, the emphasis in the Theory of Power is almost exclusively on an application of Newtonian physics.

Nonetheless, the quote Master Kim Hoon gave me regarding balgyeong does refer to Gi and if we are to understand balgyeong and its possible relevance to ITF Taekwon-Do, we have to look at this element too. Here is the definition for balgyeong Master Kim Hoon passed on to me:

발경(發勁-힘을 발휘함) 육합(六合:三盤(다리,허리,어깨),心,意,氣)을 하나로 뭉쳐 온 몸의 힘을 폭탄처럼 터뜨리는 것. (Source)

It basically says that there are six things, two pairs of three elements, which when applied harmoniously creates explosive power. The first group focus on the mechanics of balgyeong and includes the legs, hips and shoulders (다리, 허리, 어깨). It is this mechanistic part of balgyeong that I discussed in previous posts (see here and here). The second group includes the more esoteric elements: the heart or mind 心; one's thoughts, intention or will 意; and Gi 氣.

Let's first look at what Gi is and then we can see how it is part of ITF Taekwon-Do and ITF Taekwon-Do's use of balgyeong.

Literally translated Gi 氣 means air, gas, steam, or vapour. By implication it could also refer to one's breath and connotatively to one's spirit.² It is often interpreted to mean life-energy.

In the Orient it is believed that Gi energy permeates all living things. It can also be found in high abundance in fresh air, especially early in the morning around trees and flowing water, such as rivers and waterfalls.³ Martial artists, especially those concerned with Gi, can frequently be found training in such Gi encouraging conditions. In China elderly people can often be seen practising Tai Chi Quan early in the morning in parks in order to improve their health. In Korea elderly people often go hiking in the mountains for similar reasons. The ITF Encyclopaedia describes Gi as “spirit” or “a form of active energy which fills every physical cell and organ.”

What is interesting is that General Choi Hong-Hi in the ITF Encyclopaedia explained the concept of Gi using two terms; firstly Gi 氣 / 기, which we discussed above, and secondly “Chi” or “Ji” 志 / 지 (Vol. 1, p. 58, 59).

The hanja character for Ji is 志 and is made up of two root forms 士and 心. The first means scholar and the second means heart or mind: together the meaning denotes one's will; purposeful thought; determination. The ITF Encyclopaedia explains it as “will” or the “motivating force.” According to General Choi Ji 志 leads and Gi 氣 follows (Vol. 1, p. 59). In other words, Gi is directed by our will. The application of Gi, life-energy, is achieved through purposeful thought, determination, motivation or will-power.

There is also another, more practical way, in which Gi could be considered part of Taekwon-Do training. If we translate Gi to mean breath, then Gi is a significant part of ITF Taekwon-Do power generation and training. “Breath Control” is one of the six elements that constitutes the Theory of Power and is therefore part of how we perform every technique.

Let's return to the three elements that's part of balgyeong, which we mentioned earlier: First, Shim / 심/ 心—the heart or mind 心; second, Eui / 의 / 意—one's thoughts, intention or will; and third, Gi / 기 / 氣—life energy, breath or spirit.

General Choi mentions Gi and Ji. At first glance it would seem that only Gi corresponds with the three elements above. However, the other two (heart or mind 心, and one's thoughts, intention or will 意) are both implied in Ji. The character 心, meaning heart or mind, is embedded in Ji 志. The remaining character 意 can be translated as heart, soul, conscience, thought, opinion and mind. These are all related to Sim 心 and Ji 志.

Since Ji and Gi are both considered part of ITF Taekwon-Do, then one can assume that all six the elements that make up part of the definition of balgyeong is also part of ITF Taekwon-Do.

Whether all six these elements are in fact practiced in applicable techniques by all ITF Taekwon-Do practitioners is, of course, questionable. Nonetheless, a practitioner wishing to perform ITF Taekwon-Do in a way that actively uses balgyeong / fajin in his or her techniques is in my opinion, from a theoretical basis, at liberty to do so.


1. The ITF Encyclopaedia uses the McCune–Reischauer system of romanization for Korean into English which renders /g/ as “k”.

2. There exists a close semantic relationship between the Oriental concept of Gi and some Biblical terms; for instance the Hebrew word neshamah נשׁמה, which also means wind or air, as well as vital breath. It is used in the Creation account when God breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of Adam (Genesis 2:7). A synonym is ruach רוּח, which also means wind, breath, strong exhalation, life-energy, or spirit. This term is used already in the second verse of the Bible (Genesis 1:2), referring to the Spirit of God. From the context we understand that the “Spirit” of God is not merely the breath of God, but indeed some intelligent agency. The Greek translation is pneuma πνεῦμα and can also be translated as a current of air, breath, wind, or by implication a spirit and sometimes one's mind. All three variations, while meaning wind or breath, has the connotative meaning of spirit, or some type of intelligence; i.e. one's reasoning ability or will.

3. Interestingly, the air around trees and flowing water has a high content of negatively charged ions. Negative ions are known to alleviate stress, decrease depression and other physiological benefits.

16 June 2011

Like Karate or Hsing-I / Crowbar or Ball-on-Chain?

Apparently Bruce Lee once described the difference between strikes in Karate versus the strikes in Kung-Fu as follows: “a Karate punch is like being hit with a crowbar, while a Gongfu punch is like being hit by a metal ball on the end of a chain.” I have not been able to confirm this quotation, but the idea is vivid enough and serves the purpose of this post, which is to ask the question: “Does ITF Taekwon-Do hit like Karate (i.e. like a crowbar) or like Hsing-I or Tai-Chi Quan (i.e. a ball on a chain)?"

The ball-on-chain method is, of course, what is known in the Chinese internal styles as fajin 發勁. (Balgeong 발경 in Korean.) It is described by one martial artist as “impulse” or the “explosive transfer of momentum” and by another as “impact.”

I can think of at least two differences when being hit by a crowbar versus being hit by a ball on a chain. The first is the structural integrity of the crowbar. When the iron rod hits you, it does not change form. It stays hard and rigid. On the other hand, the chain to which the ball is attached does not have the structural integrity of the iron rod. As the ball is swung toward the target the chain might be stretched erect and give the illusion of it being a rigid structure, but once the ball has hit the target and the momentum that kept the chain erect is transferred into the target, the chain collapses. Secondly, the crowbar seems to stay connected to the target longer than the iron ball. After the iron ball hits the target its force is transferred into the target and the ball merely drops. The crowbar, on the other hand, is more likely to continue moving with the target; as if, in a sense, pushing the target or it might bounce off the target. True, the ball might also bounce off, but it is more likely to just drop down. Imagine the correctly played white snooker ball that comes to a quick halt after it hits the other ball as most of its momentum is transferred into the other ball; or Newton's collision ball phenomenon. (These latter examples do not really visualize the essence of balgyeong, which is more concerned with transferring energy into the target, rather than through the target.)

So which is it for ITF Taekwon-Do, crowbar or ball-on-chain?

Well, let's look at refer to the ITF Encyclopaedia in search of the answer. In the section on Concentration in the Theory of Power we find the following statement: “the shorter the time for the concentration, the greater will be the power of the blow” (Vol. 2, p. 20). Another section in the Encyclopaedia concerning attacking techniques states the following: “The moment the attacking tool reaches the target, pull it back . . .” (Vol. 3, p. 17). The attacking tool does not spend unnecessary time on the target. Once the momentum is transferred, it is pulled-back. Regarding punching the Encyclopaedia says that one should: “Avoid unnecessary tension of the arms and shoulders” and “Relax the muscles immediately after the fist has reached the target” (Vol. 3, p. 29).

In other words, the attacking tool acts more like a ball-on-chain, very quickly transferring its momentum into the target and immediately “relaxing” afterwards. The structure is not kept like a crowbar, but instead it relaxes like a ball-on-chain. Techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do also adhere to the principle of kinetic chaining where the “hip is jerked slightly before the action in order to concentrate the larger muscles of the hip and abdomen together with the smaller muscles of the four extremities against the target simultaneously.” This, of course happens sequentially. For example, in a punch, first the hips rotates towards the target, then the shoulders, then the arm is snapped forward—all of this is preceded by motion from the legs based on the “knee spring”—forming one continuous kinetic chain.

If fajin / balgyeong can be defined as kinetic chaining with emphasis on the quick transferal of momentum—impulse or impact—into the target, achieved by relaxed movements before and directly after the blow, then I believe ITF Taekwon-Do more closely follow the ball-on-chain method than the crowbar method. In other words, an ITF Taekwon-Do punch is more like a Hsing-I Quan punch than a Karate punch.

It is important to remember that this has not always been (and in a sense is still not always) the case. Taekwon-Do's father is Shotokan Karate and in the early days of Taekwon-Do the movements very much resembled Karate. The real change towards this balgyeong way of moving occurred later in ITF Taekwon-Do's evolution (I'm guessing the early 80s) even though the principles (i.e. Theory of Power) were set to paper from quite early on.

However, the observant practitioner will discover that ITF Taekwon-Do does not utilise the balgyeong method exclusively. ITF Taekwon-Do seems to be using both the ball-on-chain and the crowbar, depending on the technique. The turning kick, for instance, works on the ball-on-chain principle, while the spinning reverse turning kick (not the reverse hook kick) is based on the crowbar principle. The basic front punch employs the ball-on-chain method while the ridge-hand strike uses the crowbar method. The front snap kick is ball-on-chain; the front pushing kick is crowbar. The twisting kick, ball-on-chain; the downward kick, crowbar. And the side-piercing kick can be performed either on the ball-on-chain principle or on the crowbar principle, depending on the desired effect.

Although there has been an evolution in how ITF Taekwon-Do approaches power generation, it has not completely thrown off its Shotokan Karate heritage. It would seem that power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do is situational; sometimes used typically Karate ways of power generation, other times using balgyeong. The determining factor is usually the technique employed, but could also be the effect desired. What is significant, however, is that some of the most iconic Karate-like movements, for instance the walking stance front fore fist punch or the low forearm block, doesn't strictly employ the same Karate-like mechanics any more.

08 June 2011

The Lyoto Machida Kicking Incident

When Lyoto Machida's knocked out Randy Couture with a step over jumping front kick at UFC 129 a few weeks back, the martial art world went ballistic. The reason is because it is considered common knowledge that kicks above the waist are useless. Well, I, for one, have never been an adherent to that philosophy, and called it once "The High Kick Myth".

A few years back I hosted a "Diversification Seminar" at my dojang in Potchefstroom. Different instructors from different martial arts taught skills from their respective skill sets. I taught Hapkido, a friend taught grappling, another boxing, and my brother taught advanced kicking. One technique he taught was exactly this step over jumping front kick to the face employed by Machida. Some of the attendees didn't seem to convinced about the efficiency of the technique and probably dismissed it. While my brother may not have convinced them of its value, I hope that Machida's performance have.

Further Reading:

Totally Tae Kwon Do

This month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #28) features my contribution "Saju Jjireugi and Saju Makgi: A Techno-Philosophical Exploration" (p. 13-15) based on a blog post I wrote in April.

Another interesting read, I think, is Master Doug Cook's essay "Preserving Tradition" (p. 17-20). In it he argues the value of tradition in a time when everything has become diluted, mostly due to the extreme emphasis in sport. This reminded me of the discussions I had in South Africa with some instructors about the unhealthy emphasis on the sport aspect of Taekwon-Do these days. While I'm definitely not for keeping tradition just for the sake of tradition, I admit that there is value in it and that an over emphasis on sport comes at a price, as I've argued before.

The article "Reality Check: Edged Weapons" (p. 23-26) by Jon Mackey is indeed a reality check and concerns the brutally violent and deadly knife culture that is prevalent in Ireland and around the world. I have not written much about knife defence on this blog, but SA-ITF members may be aware that we have discussed this topic on the eSAITF email-forum in the past.

I'm yet to read all the other contributions in this issue, but am sure there will be food for thought in them too.

06 June 2011

Thoughts on Fajin / Balgyeong in ITF Taekwon-Do

After my previous post on Hsing-I Quan I've been thinking a lot about “fajin” and how it relates to power generation in ITF Taekwon-Do. Fajin 發勁 is a Chinese word and describes a way of doing one's movements in Chinese internal martial arts. In Korean it is known as “balgyeong” 발경 and is almost exclusively used in relation to Taegeuk-Kwon 태극권, the Korean name for Tai-Chi Quan 太極拳. Fajin / balgyeong is sometimes paralleled to sneezing as the energy is metaphorically (or is it literally?) released from deep within the body, similar to a sneeze.

The video below shows a Tai-Chi practitioner demonstrating fajin in his motions.

Looking at motions that demonstrate fajin, I cannot help but see overlap with movements in ITF Taekwon-Do. I asked Master Kim Hoon about balgyeon but he said that while he is familiar with the concept, it has never been his area of study, so he could not expand on it much. Instead he sent me the following description:

발경(發勁-힘을 발휘함) 육합(六合:三盤(다리,허리,어깨),心,意,氣)을 하나로 뭉쳐 온 몸의 힘을 폭탄처럼 터뜨리는 것. (Source)

The description seems to indicate that there are six elements to balgyeong, grouped as a pair of triplets. The first three elements concern the mechanics of the movements, involving the legs, hips and shoulders (다리, 허리, 어깨). The second group is more esoteric and concerns the heart or mind, the intention or will, and gi (aka ki / qi) or life-energy (心, 意, 氣). Regarding the first group, the description basically talks about coordinating the legs, hips, and shoulders sequentially, to generate explosive power. I will have to think more about the second group and how it relates to ITF Taekwon-Do, but as for the first group, I think the relationship of legs, hips and shoulders are obvious to those familiar with kinetic chaining or sequential motion as employed in ITF Taekwon-Do.

One Tai-Chi website, MartialTaiChi.co.uk, describes a fa-jin strike as follows:

The following illustrations will attempt to show levels of relative muscular tension during a fajin strike.


The white portions of the body show only peng or background tension, such as that required to stand up. The power (jin) is generated by firing successive muscle groups, starting with the rear foot and pushing up from the braced rear heel through each muscle in turn, adding acceleration through each successive muscle or group of muscles. The red areas show the body parts where the momentum is currently being accelerated and the orange through to yellow sections show the body settling back to a lower level of tension such as that necessary to brace against the impact. The fighter should not rise up as her power pushes through her body, rather she should sink lower and compress to brace the strike. The whole process should happen in a fraction of a second. Notice how the whole body returns to its background peng levels once the power has been released so that the fighter may return to a state whereby she is equally ready to move any portion of her body.

A typical ITF Taekwon-Do fundamental punch works on similar kinetic chaining principles. Before the shoulders rotate, it is preceded by the turning of the hip, which in turn is part of a greater leg-motion initiated by the knee-spring. Although the process is never so clearly described in the ITF Encyclopaedia, the principles are embedded in the Theory of Power and Training Secrets, as well as other descriptive passages in the ITF Encyclopaedia. I've posted about kinetic chaining a number of times before. (See the “Kinetic Chaining” keyword tag.)

But fajin is not merely kinetic chaining. If it was, then we can describe what a baseball pitcher does as fajin or a pro boxer's cross punch as fajin. Maybe I am wrong, and fajin is merely kinetic chaining, but my gut tells me differently. For one thing, in the video above of the Tai-Chi practitioner demonstrating fajin, one can see why the sneezing metaphor is used. The same sneezing metaphor does not fit the description of the baseball pitcher and western boxer. See for example the Fight Science explanation of kinetic chaining as used by a boxer to achieve a knock-out punch. The kinetic chaining is obvious, but there is no “sneezing.”

Dan Djurdjevic describes fajin as “an explosive transfer of momentum - impulse.” For me, ITF Taekwon-Do is all about momentum, but do we approach our use of moment like the Chen style Tai-Chi or Hsing-I practitioner or do we approach our use of momentum like a boxer?

I have my thoughts and will probably divulge them a little later. In the meantime, what's the method you employ? And how do you think ITF Taekwon-Do go about generating momentum?

Further Reading: