17 December 2012

The Do: The Principle of Full and Empty Space

The following is an excerpt from the book Taekwondo: The Spirit of Korea (2000) by Steven D. Carpener, Jae Sik Suh and Edward H. Kim, from the chapter "The Technical Philosophy of Taekwondo" (p. 23-25). I'm sharing this excerpt as it very effectively explains the very important Princple of Full and Empty Space.  Interestingly, while this book was published by Korea's Ministry of Culture and Tourism as a type of glossy coffee table book rather than an official reference book, this is one of the few English sources that so succinctly explains this core principle in Taekwondo. 

. . .

Taekwondo's Taoist philosophy is expressed in the Tao (or Do in Korean) character found in taekwondo's name. The Do is generally understood as a way, path, or process one follows in anything one attempts. Do, as an Eastern philosophical concept is difficult to express in words. However, in describing taekwondo training it is possible to demonstrate how the Do elevates taekwondo from merely a spirited combat sport or self-defense technique to a way of expressing harmony between one's mental and physical states, and with one's environment.

The way the Do operates in taekwondo training must be understood in Asian philosophical terms. The general understanding of the Do is that it is a proper way to do something. In physical terms, this means when the body moves there is a proper way or path which that movement should follow to be most efficient, graceful, or appropriate. In taekwondo training, especially in sparring, this means that there is one most correct way to execute techniques in any given situation. This is the stage of skill. When one teaches a point where the body moves naturally according to the proper way or path, we say that one has mastered a particular skill. In taekwondo sparring, when one's movements are performed correctly according to the demands of the situation, one has experienced a moment of harmony between oneself and the opponent.

One of the key principles of the Do that makes this harmony possible is the principle of empty and full space. According to this principle, when two bodies interacts, the relative positions of those bodies in space and time create a continuous flowing exchange of full and empty space. Due to the limited number of ways the legs and arms can be used within the restrictions (rules) of sparring there are a fixed number of possible techniques. The result of this is that for every attack there are one or more perfectly complimentary counterattacks. And for every counterattack, there are one or more perfectly complimentary re-counterattacks. This means that each person knows what the likely responses to any given attack or counterattack will be. Therefore, the superior player is the one who can take advantage of the empty space created in the opponent's position by using speed, timing, and strategy.

The strategic aspect of taekwondo is especially fascinating. No other martial art uses kicking techniques with such finesse and accuracy. The superior player's body is able to predict or sense the moment when his or her opponent will surrender an instant of empty space which, if “filled” with the appropriate technique, results in a scoring strike that has the symmetry of two perfectly meshing gears. This moment, when a point is achieved by manipulating the principle of full and empty space, is not only the goal of sparring and competition, but can also be a moment of physical and mental harmony: the harmony of one's own spirit and body resulting in right action, and the harmony of one's fullness with the opponent's emptiness.

When approached in this way, taekwondo sparring is ripe with the potential for philosophical (educational) value. The moment of right action is very important not only in the sense that one's technique and spirit are correct but also because this is the instant when one has entered the level of the Do. It is the ultimate moment when one's body has found the way to fill the opponent's emptiness in the midst of fierce resistance. When one repeatedly experiences this harmony, the doors to higher understanding can be flung open. In fact, it may seem as if the secrets of the universe are being revealed through these quick, precise movements. The taekwondo practitioner then comes to see the opponent not as an adversary but rather, as the potential medium for creating a work of art, much as the sculptor does not merely see a piece of stone but, rather the creation waiting to be liberated.

Just as there is a technical or physical aesthetic in taekwondo, so also is there a spiritual aesthetic. In order to teach the level where one's techniques and movements approach the ideal, a great deal of training is needed. This training is a process which brings about mental and spiritual change.

. . .

The authentic practitioner understands that taekwondo is a way, a process, and not just a means to an end such as fighting skill or medals. This is the paradox of the Do; the authentic practitioner who values the internal process of development more than external rewards usually develops the best skills.

07 November 2012

Sine Wave Motion & Korean Kinesthetics

For a long time I have felt myself to be a singular voice proclaiming the obvious connection between ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion and the movement of Taekkyeon, Korea's folk martial art. As someone that has trained in Taekkyeon, the link is glaringly obvious. Even though General Choi Hong-Hi downplayed Taekkyeon's influence, the link is undeniable as almost anyone that has trained in both ITF and Taekkyeon will tell you. It is therefore with much satisfaction that I read Paul Mitchell's interview with Grandmaster (Dr.) Kimm He-Young in last month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #44).

Children playing Taekkyeon
Grandmaster Kimm, a Korean martial arts historian, affirmed what I have found as well, that ITF Taekwon-Do's kinaesthetics is very much a Korean way of moving which is very clearly also seen in Taekkyeon. Grandmaster Kimm explains that although “General Choi says he is not using Taekkyeon in creating Taekwon-Do system [sic], he is using Korean body movement, which is different from Japanese body movement,” (p. 20). The core of Taekkyeon is its three-rhythm movement; the most fundamental training in Taekkyeon is the poombalbgi 품밟기, Taekkyeon's three-rhythm stepping. Grandmaster Kimm continues to explains that “Japanese [martial arts] have a two beat movement, 'block, punch', 'block, punch'. But the Korean body rhythm has 3 beats . . . one two three, one two three. This is the reason that in free sparring Koreans are always moving, the Japanese are steady. General Choi said his Taekkyeon didn't influence his Taekwon-Do, but the Korean people's body culture [kinaesthetics], which you can see in Taekwon-Do, you see in Taekkyon as well, iki yakki iki, one two three” (p. 21).

[Read more about the Korean rhythm here.]

Grandmaster Kimm explains that although Taekwon-Do techniques are “Shotokan based” they are “adapted to Korean body culture” (p. 21), i.e. Korean kinaesthetics. In a previous post I said basically the same: “ITF Taekwon-Do has incorporated the soft style wave principle from Taekkyeon into the Karate way of moving.”

In trying to understand ITF Taekwon-Do's kinaesthetics (including its employment of the sine wave motion) one cannot approach it exclusively from a Japanese, Karatesque paradigm. One has to include the Taekkyeon connection, and you must take into account the greater context of Korean kinaesthetics. The Korean “Body Culture”, as Grandmaster Kimm refers to it, is visible also in traditional Korean dance. In closing, look at this video that I took earlier this year of Korean Buddhist monks and nuns (yes, Korea has Buddhist nuns) performing a dance ceremony during Buddha's Birthday celebrations. An ITF practitioner will immediately recognise the “sine wave motion,” and people familiar with the Korean “Body Culture” will recognise it very easily as well.

28 October 2012

A Demonstration

Just another video of a Northern Korean team demonstrating ITF Taekwon-Do. Of course it is all choreographed, but that is after all the purpose of a demonstration of this sort. This particular demonstration goes to great lengths to focus exclusively on fundamental techniques (i.e. basic movements) in action. The fact that some of the boards do not break shows that these are actual hard boards, not the cardboard thin planks customarily used in the demonstrations of other taekwondo version.

Whatever qualms people have about the practicability of ITF Taekwon-Do, including its controversial sine-wave motion, they cannot deny the dexterity, power, and precision that this martial art can instil. But with all things, such feats requires lots of dedicated training.

02 September 2012

Three-in-One Imbalance in Taekwondo

I'm currently attending the 2012 Seoul World Taekwondo Leaders Forum (서울 세계 태권도 권도 지도자포럼), and in particularly the academic symposium. I came late for a paper by Youn Je Hong, head of the Korea Martial Philosophy Research Center, but the bit I did catch (and understood -- it was in Korean) was quite interesting. His focus was on "Measures to Innovate Taekwondo Training for Young People".

Young argued that Taekwondo has a "Three in One" composition consisting of Musul (무술 / 몸 / "body"), Muye (무예 / 감성 / "sensibility" or "emotion"), and Mudo (무도 / 겅신 / "spirit"). (See my post on Moosool, Mooye, and Moodo.)He pointed out that Taekwondo has wrongly focussed on only one aspect of the "Three in One" composition, namely on Musul, or the physical aspects of Taekwondo.

Since Young started his presentation against the background of the 2012 Olympic Games and also because the symposium is a Kukkiwon sponsored event, it is safe to assume that he refered to WTF (Kukkiwon) Taekwondo almost exclusively and not ITF Taekwon-Do; in the case of the latter the "Three in One" is much better balanced.

The lack of the more abstract and philosophical components (Muye and Mudo) is indeed an unfortunate current state of WTF Taekwondo and it is therefore heartening to see that it is being addressed at an academic symposium like this one. At the same time, it serves as a warning to ITF Taekwon-Do which seems to place ever more emphasis on the sport aspect (i.e. Musul) of the style.
It is my opinion that the reason for the "Three in One" imbalance in WTF (Kukkiwon) Taekwon-Do is its over-emphasis on Taekwondo as a martial sport, rather than a martial art. ITF Taekwon-Do is not immune from such a focus shift, in part because the more abstract and philosophical qualities are exceedingly difficult to measure. (See my post on "How Do You Quantify Taekwon-Do?")

01 September 2012

Why I Don't Train in (Kick-) Boxing

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The gym in Seoul, Korea, that I am associated with, in other words, where I am an instructor, provides a good spectrum of training. At 'The Way' Martial Arts & Fitness we offer Taekwon-Do (ITF for adults and WTF for children) augmented with Hapkido, an amateur MMA program, and Cross-Fit training. The MMA program contains two types of classes: stand-up fighting classes based on Boxing, Muay Thai, Kickboxing and ITF Taekwon-Do; and ground-fighting classes based on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Yusul (Korean jujitsu).

I'm one of the primary instructors for ITF Taekwon-Do and Hapkido and also occassionally help out with the grappling class. However, while I sometimes join the stand-up fighting classes, there are certain exercises, particularly those from Boxing and Kickboxing that I opt out of; in particular, I refuse to practise in the slipping, and bobbing and weaving drills.

Don't get me wrong, I think Boxing (and by implication I include here the hand techniques of Kickboxing) is very effective, and even for street fighting purposes people with a good foundation in boxing can often handle themselves very well (although they often break their hands which are not used to the impact of an unpadded fist on a naked skull, but that is besides the point). Some of the fighters I know personally and would not want to fight are trained foremost in Boxing.

There is very little one can do to improve on the offensive techniques in boxing. There are basically only four offensive techniques in boxing: the jab, the cross, the hook and the uppercut. Boxing has pretty much mastered the mechanics of these techniques and I don't mind training in them. And when I do, I am reminded of my instructor who often said: "Taekwon-Do is firstly Boxing." It is, however, in the defensive techniques of Boxing that I feel ill at ease, particularly those techniques that tilt the spinal alignment from the straight posture where the head is over the centre of gravity and the shoulders, hips and feet are in equilibrium.

The video above demonstrates the defensive method
of slipping and rolling (or weaving) used in Boxing. 

Within the close fighting context of Boxing as a combat sport the defensive techniques of slipping and weaving is valuable. It allows one to avoid attacks without losing ground, which is a sensible skill if your aim is to stay withing the close fighting range.

However, for me specializing in a traditional martial art fond of kicking and with a self-defence focus, I find slipping and weaving contra-productive to the types of skills I wish to engrain. Firstly, slipping and weaving makes sense in a fists-only context, but the moment you bring leg attacks (kneeing and kicking) into the equation, slipping and weaving just becomes dangerous. You are in effect lowering your head towards the opponents knees or kicks! Not wise. With the exception of kickboxing, if we can apply the term "martial arts" to include kickboxing, I cannot think of any other martial art that trains in kicks and also slipping and weaving. (An exception may be Capoiera, but there is diffferent dynamics at play in this Brazilian fighting-dance.) Even a long established combat sport like Muay Thai does not use slipping and weaving as primary defensive movements.

Also, slipping and weaving requires you to shift your head's position away from its prime balance position over the centre of gravity. The traditional martial arts puts a lot of emphasis on keeping correct posture and ensuring a balanced position. The head is almost always kept directily over the centre of gravity and the shoulders and hips are usually in line and balanced relative to the knees and feet. Once a person has his head positioned away from its primed balanced position, take downs  and throws become much easier.

In ITF Taekwon-Do, my base style, I can think of maybe five fundamental techniques where the posture is not erect. Considering that ITF Taekwon-Do allegedly containts over 3000 techniques, that should speak volumes about the principle of keeping an erect, well-balanced posture. My other training in Hapkido and Taekkyeon puts similar emphasis on keeping an erect posture and I can assume the same for many of the other styles I had dabbled in.

Of course, it is necessary to mention that there is good slipping and bad slipping. Good slipping is only the slightest amount of tilt and movement that allows the opponent's fist to miss its target (your head); then there is bad slipping which is an exaggerated bend in the posture. For a good exposition on both good slipping and bad slipping, read "How to Slip Punches" at ExportBoxing.Com.

And so, whenever I join the stand-up fighting class at my gym, I train in most of what the class has to offer, but deliberately sit out whenever slipping and weaving is practised. Again, I don't doubt the value of these defensive motions in the confined context of competition sparring where hand techniques and close range fighting is preferenced. ITF Taekwon-Do athletes have incorporated some of these bobbing weaving motions for tournament sparring and within this confined context there might be value at the close fighting ranges and since knee kicks, grabbing and throwing are illegal in ITF tournament sparring, some of the dangers that slipping (particular of the bad type) presents, are less worrisome. For other contexts and particularly the self-defence contexts, exercises that compromise erect posture, and therefore optimum equilibrium, are not the types of exercises I want to ingrain. 

28 August 2012


Boosabeom Philip of the Soo Shim Kwan Potchefstroom Dojang informed me of the focus they have on plyometric training for dallyeon at the moment. Plyometrics uses explosive movements in which you have to quickly, and forcefully, move as much of your body weight as possible. Think of doing powerful vertical jumps from a squatting position. The advantage of plyometric exercises is that they dramatically improve both strength and speed, which are important ingredients in martial art training.

See the link for a host of different plyometric exercise ideas. Although many of these exercises require some training equipment like a medicine ball or boxes, there is quite a number that can be done without any equipment.

Because of the sudden exertion of force plyometric exercises can lead to injuries, particularly of the tendons, so make sure that you  first have conditioned the body to at least an intermediate fitness and strength level before starting a plyometric training program. Also, never do plyometric exercises unless you have thoroughly warmed up your body to a light sweat, ensuring the muscles are ready for action.

23 August 2012

GM Rhee Ki-Ha and Sine Wave Motion

If Grandmaster Rhee Ki-Ha says "down-up-down", then who am I to disagree?! (-;

19 August 2012

Grand Master Park Jung Tae Seminar, Ireland 1987

The Republic of Ireland Taekwon-Do Association (RITA-ITF) recently did the ITF Taekwon-Do world an exquisite favour by uploading onto YouTube a series videos of a technical seminar presented by Grandmaster Park Jung Tae, who was in his time both Secretary General and Technical Director of ITF Taekwon-Do (and later president of GTF).

What I find fascinating about this seminar is that what I'm teaching today in 2012 is not that much different from what he taught in 1987. And I'm specifically referring to the kinaesthetics: e.g. the use of hip twist and sine wave motion (body raising or dropping) in power generation; the employing of a small loop-motion in order to adhere to the “once the movement is in motion it should not stop until it reaches its target”-principle (I like how he said: “No punch comes out from the hip!”); stances and stepping; real focus on “snappiness” in balgyeong techniques, such as knife hand strikes; a clear sense of intermediate positions; and the importance of relaxation. Keep in mind that my personal influences have been quite eclectic: I had trained under instructors from South Africa, England, Australia, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Argentina; technically, I consider my personal techniques to be most closely in line with the Chang Ung ITF group.

Grandmaster Park's seminar goes through the colour belt patterns, starting with Dan-Gun Teul and ending with Choong-Moo Teul. While watching the videos, focus on Grandmaster Park's movements and teaching, rather than that of the participants as some of them are still adjusting their techniques and sometimes perform it clearly wrong.









02 August 2012

Thoughts on Women's Self-Defence

I'm submitting this as a very late contribution to a recent Blogging Carnival on Women's Self-Defence. Unfortunately other priorities did not allow me to be part of the planned Blogging Carnival date. Regardless, I hope that this short essay may add some value to the discourse of Women's Self-Defence.

You can find links to the official contributions to this blogging carnival here.


Every two weeks I host a martial art workshop. Generally I facilitate the workshops myself, but often I also get other instructors to present it. I try to keep the workshops different and interesting in order to get as wide an audience of martial artists to interact with each other as possible. After these bi-weekly workshops the participants usually enjoy a meal together at a local restaurant and just get to know each other better. During one such a conversation, one of the participants, a female who had recently been in a potentially violent situation, said that the reason she decided to join the workshop was in order to learn to defend herself. The particular theme of the workshop for that day was Basic Hapkido Principles and she wanted to know if I think she should take up Hapkido or Taekwon-Do (knowing that I teach both), since she is feeling somewhat unsafe at the moment.

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Knowing that her need for self-protection is an immediate one, I told her that she would be better off taking a focussed self-defence seminar, and then, at least for the short term, taking up a non-traditional system such as boxing, kick-boxing, Muay Thai or amateur MMA classes. Incidentally the gym I teach at has an amateur MMA (stand-up fighting and grappling) program as well, but that was not the reason I made the suggestion. There are many other things that self-defence advice should include, particularly "soft-skills" such as building awareness, but when all else fails some fighting skill is prudent and acquiring some martial art skills are imperative.

The question is, why did I as a nearly 20 year practitioner of traditional martial arts and long time instructor of Taekwon-Do tell her not to take up a traditional martial art but instead take up a combat sport? Don't I believe that traditional martial arts are good for self-defence? Actually, I think that traditional martial arts, when taught with the correct emphasis, can be excellent vehicles for acquiring self-defence skill. The problem is that traditional martial arts take a long time to become proficient at. If your only goal is to gain some fighting skill in a relatively short time, then taking up a combat sport, I believe, is better.

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For a majority of women the biggest hurdle in acquiring self-defence skill is their conditioned (or natural?) aversion to offending or hurting another person and also their acceptance of being “oppressed”. Often, my biggest struggle as a martial art instructor with women is getting them to do their techniques with realism. And just because they can do it with a sense of reality on a target pad or punching bag, doesn't mean that they will do it with the same, albeit, controlled realism on their training partners, for fear of hurting the other person. Getting them to forego their fear of not being ladylike is a surprising but difficult obstacle for many women. If nothing else, combat sports for example Boxing, Kickboxing or Muay Thai, force a person to very quickly get used to “hurting” other people. At the same time, the high frequency of contact during practise also forces the student to get used to getting hit, getting used to “violent” contact. These two skills—being used to aggressive contact and the willingness to “hurt” someone else—are crucial ingredients for self-defence and the rate at which you acquire these skills are generally much higher among combat sports than traditional martial arts. For example, in a typical combat sports class one may start basic sparring even from the first class. In a traditional martial art it is often the case that the student is guided into sparring over an extensive period.

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Personally I still believe that in the long run properly taught traditional martial art training is a better option to prepare one for self-defence scenarios as it teaches a variety of skills preparing one for a variety of scenarios. A combat sport limits the type of techniques one may use because of the rules of the sport. A traditional martial art, on the other hand, may include many "illegal" techniques such as elbow and knee strikes, eye gauging, biting, throat and groin attacks, and so on. However, if a woman has not overcome her aversion to punching a person, she is even less likely to bite or scratch at the eyes. While combat sports are limited in technique, the faster forging of a fighting spirit is probably the biggest value for a person wishing to gain self-defence ability. Often merely putting up a spirited fight may dissuade the attacker from further action. Violent crimes tend to be performed by criminals picking on easy targets. Many a person have defended themselves by shear determination, not by martial art skill. It is this fighting spirit that contact sparring can develop and such sparring experience will happen much quicker in, say, a kick-boxing or MMA gym, than in a traditional martial art gym.

It is for this reason that if somebody where to ask me, what “style” should I study in order to protect myself in a short time, that I advise them to take up a combat sport, as I did with the women that posed me that question recently. This, of course, must be done in conjunction with at least an introductory course in realistic self-defence.

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On the other hand, if one want to learn a strong foundation with a variety of ingrained techniques that can by applied in an array of different situations, I would definitely suggest a good traditional martial art school that has proper emphasis on self-defence training. Traditional martial arts also have a variety of fringe benefits, including the progressive and increasingly difficult goals (be they short term belt exams, breaking more boards, learning more difficult techniques), that set up regular victories over a long period to recondition a person into establishing a good self-worth. One's sense of self-worth is probably one of the greatest impulses to carry oneself in a confident manner; in other words, carrying one self in such a way that you communicate that you are not an easy target. But one needs to be careful: I believe it is better to train at a mediocre sport combat gym, than train at a poor traditional martial art school, for at least at the sport combat gym you will get exposure to contact sparring, while at a poor traditional martial art school you are likely to gain mere illusions of proficiency.

31 July 2012

Original Taekwon-Do?

It has been about two months since my last post. Appologies to regular readers of this blog. It had been the end of the semester and as a university lecturer I had exam papers to compile, and then grade, which is an exhausting exercise. I didn't have the time to write about martial arts and when at last I had the time I didn't have the energy or inclination.

But onto something else. I was talking to my Kwanjang here in Seoul, and the question came up, when did Taekwon-Do really become Taekwon-Do? When did it stop being Shotokan Karate. Was what General Choi Hong Hi, the principle founder of Taekwon-Do, taught as Oh Do Kwan “original” Taekwon-Do? At the time, like most of the other original Kwan, it didn't differ much from Karate.

Should we consider the Taekwon-Do of 1955, when the term “tae kwon do” was coined, as the Golden Age of original Taekwon-Do? At this time most of the patterns used were still Karate kata, with only a handful (plus minus five), new Chang Hon patterns developed. In 1959 when the first international Taekwon-Do demonstrations were held, it was already something else—something different from mere Karate, but even at this point Taekwon-Do was still “incomplete”.

Or is the time that the 24 patterns were set, around 1965, the Golden Age of “original” Taekwon-Do, or maybe 22 March 1966 when the International Taekwon-Do Federation, was formed—was that the pinnacle of “original” Taekwon-Do? But we all know that General Choi was still altering the ITF style, and even as late as the early 80s major changes were introduces, such as a more thorough implementation of the sine wave motion. The principles for the sine wave motion had by this time already been available in the ITF Encyclopaedia, but not really applied, until Grandmaster Choi began emphasizing it at seminars. Is this “original” Taekwon-Do?

I'm asking this question about what or when “original” Taekwon-Do was, because there are now so many people claiming to be doing “original” Taekwon-Do. For some it means a complete return to the Oh Do Kwan days of the 1950s. To them I would say, why bother with Taekwon-Do at all? Go find a good hard Karate system, like Kyukushin Karate and do that instead. Others want to do something “Korean”, but without the later (embarrassing?) North Korean connections or the inclusion of the sine wave motion. To them, I'd say, stop doing Taekwon-Do and adopt Tang Soo Do.

Taekwon-Do had never been “original”. From its very start it had been a type of mixed martial art. It developed out of Karate, was flavoured with Taekkyeon, and then spiced with some Kung-Fu, Western Boxing, Judo and later Hapkido. It sourced a lot from military strategies (particularly Western military strategies), and is heavily influenced by a selection of centuries old Oriental philosophies. And the moment Taekwon-Do became international, it also became international in its characteristics. The form of ITF practised in South Africa has a different “personality” from the form practised in, say, Japan.

Admittedly, I have used the terms “original” and “authentic” Taekwon-Do myself, but such terms, as this essay hopes to highlight, are innate problematic. Taekwon-Do is a constantly evolving organism. Not only ought one be suspicious of people claiming to teach “original” Taekwon-Do, one must also wonder if what they are doing is not stagnating the natural adaptation of the organism.

Momentarily moving away from the term “original” to the term “authentic”, for me “authentic” Taekwon-Do is anything that manifests Taekwon-Do's Theory of Power and other such principles. In this sense, Taekwon-Do is less of a style, but more of a Tao / “Do” and I can sometimes see Taekwon-Do in an MMA fighter's “Brazilian kick” or an urban free-runner's vault, or a baseball pitcher's throw, or a B-boy's equilibrium, or a cat's pounce, or the oscillation of an arrow as it darts toward its target, or the suppleness of an erect bamboo yielding in the wind.

Just some incomplete thoughts on the question of “original” (and “authentic”) Taekwon-Do.

29 May 2012

"Drilling" Simplicity

I've been having some interesting conversations with Ymar recently—one point we have been disagreeing on is the nature of ingraining habits in martial art training. You can read some of our discussions in the comments section of my previous post on “Motion Without (Muscular) Movement” and also at his blog.

One point Ymar makes is that we should minimize all habits. This reminded me of an Introduction to Jeet Kune Do Workshop I hosted recently.

Dr. Zee Lo and me.

Our guest instructor for the day was the amiable Dr. Zee Lo. Unfortunately we had some time constrains so the workshop was quite short, but the good thing about this is that it forced Dr. Zee to really get down to the essence of Jeet Kune Do. For him Jeet Kune Do is all about simplification. One example he gave, for instance, was that there is only one stance in Jeet Kune Do. The beauty of simplicity, particularly for self-defence purposes, is undeniable.

For one thing, under stress, simple proves to be much more practical. When adrenaline dump causes you to lose fine motor function and some cognitive ability, it is the simple techniques that will work best.

My friend Leo Snel (right) and another attendee practising
trapping drills at the Jeet Kune Do workshop.

Few people realize exactly how radical Bruce Lee's teaching was. Bruce Lee broke away with centuries of Chinese martial art tradition, yet he did not really produce anything new. The martial art principles he based his teaching on were taught in one form or another by many other well established martial arts. What he did was break through the clutter of tradition, and bring to light the fundamental principles; as Dr. Zee said, “Jeet Kune Do is all about simplification.”

Bruce Lee wrote (and I think Ymar will agree): “A martial artist who drills exclusively to a set pattern of combat is losing his freedom. He is actually becoming a slave to a choice pattern and feels that the pattern is the real thing. It leads to stagnation because the way of combat is never based on personal choice and fancies, but constantly changes from moment to moment, and the disappointed combatant will soon find out that his 'choice routine' lacks pliability. There must be a 'being' instead of a 'doing' in training. One must be free. Instead of complexity of form, there should be simplicity of expression.”

I agree. How can I not?

So do I think that simplicity means no drilling, no creation of habits? For me the answer lies not in drilling habits, but gaining certain skills. I think I address the issue in my post on the purpose and value of pre-arranged sparring.

To move reflexively, we have to train our bodies, we have to drill and condition. As Bruce Lee also said: “The hands and feet must be sharpened and improved daily to be efficient.”

But there is an important point I also made in my post on pre-arranged sparring: “While there is value in prearranged sparring, an over emphasis can actually become counter productive because practitioners may become too used to the reduction in variables that their preparation is not reflective of the huge number of variables in a real fight. A systematic progression from prearranged abstraction to "reality based" reflection of real combat is crucial.” This concurs with Bruce Lee's opinion: “The techniques, though they play an important role in the early stage, should not be too restrictive, complex or mechanical. If we cling to them, we will become bound by their limitation.”

We cannot forget that the expectations for a beginner are different than for an experienced martial artist. There exists a development from moosool, to mooye, to moodo. And as one moves up this continuum you find that things actually do become simpler. Paradoxically, what the beginner find tremendously complex, is simple to the experienced martial artist. The advanced martial artist is not confined to complexities, yet to have arrived at such simplicity in motion, such grace and ease of technique, required years of (complex) study. That is the paradox of simplicity.

A first degree black belt asked me a while back that we drill in some specific techniques more regularly because it seems like every night I teach I teach something different. I was quite surprised at this because in my mind I'm teaching only a small handful of things—a small ensemble of the same basic principles. It may seem that I'm teaching hordes of techniques, but that is because I'm not confined to any single technique. I'm working from the same principles. Yet it is also true that I can do this because I have, over the years, drilled in many techniques until they have become comfortable. Only because I don't have to think about them do they flow. For me simplicity comes from moving from principles. For beginners, however, it is often difficult to do this. They first need to build up a repertoire of conditioned techniques, and only then can they start to express themselves freely. Like a maestro musician that makes her free expression of the music she plays look so simple and unfettered, this is only possible because she had put in the thousands of hours of drilling scales and other difficult training that now shows the fruit of her labours.

Simplicity doesn't come easy.

25 May 2012

My Presence at the London 2012 Olympic Games

I'm going to the London 2012 Olympic Games . . .

Me, in WTF Taekwon-Do attire. 
No, that is not completely true; however, a digital rendition of me will be there.

I had the strange privilege to be part of an art project that will be a permanent part of the Olympic Games History Museum. The visual-kinetic artist Jung Yeondoo creates 360-degree photographic images using high-definition, high-speed cameras, combined with green screen chromatic backdrops and CGI special effects. This latest project of his will depict the five martial arts that are part of the Olympic Games: Boxing, Judo, Fencing, Wrestling, and Taekwondo. The models for the photographs are actual athletes training as part of the Korean Olympic team. The problem, however, is that the photos should give a representative reflection of the multi-cultural quality of the Olympic Games, so using only Korean athletes would not be ideal. Jung Yeondoo and his team had initially considered normal fashion models, but found that while the models could copy the postures of the athletes, they could not show the actual competitive intensity that an actual athlete, an actual martial artist displays. This is where myself and some other foreign martial artists residing in Korea came in.

My co-model, the Taekwondo
athlete Park Chang-Joon.
I modelled with a Korean Taekwondo athlete, Park Chang-Joon, who is on the Korean national training team. Undoubtedly in much better shape than myself and I for not a moment question his athletic ability, Park Chang-Joon was nonetheless very respectful and cordial towards me. I'm guessing that I am about ten years older than him, which in Taekwondo Olympic terms mean that I'm ancient. Olympic Taekwondo athletes are typically young adults in their early twenties. It is not unusual for a Taekwon-Do player to retire under 25.

What I lack in youth, I however made up for in intensity. Jung Yeondoo complimented me on the aggressive energy I projected during the shoot, which is hopefully effectively captured on camera.  After all, this is why they wanted actual martial artists rather than normal models.

Park Chang-Joon and myself testing a
pose for the 360-degree photo shoot.
It was a very nice experience, and while I will not get a copy of the final product (it is copyrighted by the Olympic History Museum), I will receive a DVD of the raw footage captured.

I never imagined that I'll have any part in anything related to the Olympic Games. I'm not by nature a very competitive person. I am an artist at heart, so what better way for me to be involved than as part of a permanent art exhibit! And one day, when I visit London, I look forward to visit myself in a museum!

20 May 2012

Motion Without (Muscular) Movement

In this post I am going to discuss the way in which ITF Taekwon-Do’s sine wave motion teaches the practitioner to achieve motion without muscular movement; in other words, how to move the body—shift the body’s centre of gravity, without tensing muscles.

The full sine wave motion has three distinct phases in which the body seems to move “down-up-down”, but which is slightly better described as “relax-rise-fall”. In this post I want to speak about an unusual value of the first phase of the sine wave motion—the relax-phase—to actually initiate movement, to cause movement without using any muscular tension. This sounds paradoxical, for all human motion is achieved by tensing muscles. If I want to bend my arm, I need to flex my biceps; conversely, if I want to straighten my arm I need to contract my triceps. For movement to occur there has to be muscles that contract and so manipulate the skeleton like a puppeteer’s strings, or the cables and pulleys in a crane, or the hydraulics in heavy machinery.

Motion Through Relaxation

There is, however, another way that the body can move without any muscular contraction involved. Do this simple exercise: With your arms by your side, bend one arm up towards you as if you are lifting a dumbbell—as your biceps tenses it shortens and causes your arm to bend upwards. To lower your arm again you can go about it in two ways. First, you can contract your triceps (and relax your biceps) and in so doing actively pull your arm back to its original position. Or, second, you can merely relax your biceps  and let your arm fall to your side—instead of your triceps pulling your arm straight, it is gravity’s pull that straightens it. In so doing, you have achieved motion without any activated muscles involved; thus achieving motion without active movement.

The first phase of the full sine wave motion does something similar. The sine wave motion is initiated not by contracting any muscles, but by relaxing muscle. For instance, if you are standing in a walking stance and wish to step forward, the sine wave motion dictates that you will completely relax your front leg, causing your body weight to fall forward towards that leg. Of course, you have to “catch” yourself and activate your leg muscles again lest you completely collapse, but the interesting thing is that you have actually commenced your movement, not by using in muscular tension, but quite the opposite. You have initiated your motion by relaxing!

Of all the different advantages that the initial phase of the sine wave motion has to offer, I think this  “motion through relaxation” is probably the most interesting, and probably one of the most unique contributions the sine wave motion brought to ITF Taekwon-Do. With it you can literally effortlessly shift your body's position. Depending on your initial stance, there are four directions in which you can shift your body weight: forwards, backwards, lateral, or even diagonal.

An Example

In this post I will present an example of lateral body weight shifting achieved through this  “motion through relaxation” method, into a particular intermediate position, and I will illustrate some strategic possibilities that this position and its relation to one's opponent offers. Remember that this is just one example of lateral movement. The effortless way in which forward or backward (or even diagonal) motion can be achieved also offers interesting possibilities.

Let’s look at an example of “motion through relaxation” that is achieved through the first relax-phase in the very first movement of the pattern Chon-Ji. The pattern starts with a low forearm block towards the left. Many instructors fall directly into this block, not passing through the intermediate position. This has a strategic advantage because it is a much quicker way to perform the block than when one actually passes through the intermediate position. However, this particular “motion through relaxation” intermediate position has other benefits. For one, it shifts the body away from the danger, allowing the defender a moment to assess the situation. It also teaches a very useful and practical lesson early on in the practitioner’s training, which will be the focus of the remainder of this post.

Look at the picture in which I move from the “ready position” of the pattern into the first intermediate position. The red line that runs through the first picture is my centre line and, assuming that my opponent is standing in front of me, this is also the likely attack line of my opponent. Without any effort or muscular tension I can shift my body off of the attack line by merely relaxing my weight onto my right leg and in so doing shifting practically all my vital spots out of dangers way. Shifting one’s body weight in this relaxed way occurs surprisingly fast. My new positioning (intermediate position) relative to my opponent also opens up various counter-attack possibilities as the video shows.

The video below begins with the full first movement of the pattern Chon-Ji, then shows how one shifts your body weight into the intermediate position by merely relaxing one leg and dropping your body weight onto that leg, and lastly demonstrates different possible applications from this position.

“Animal” MacYoung's “'great secret' of fighting”

“Gravity is the fastest and most effective way to get your entire body weight in motion! . . . You can move faster by intentionally falling down than you can by trying to muscle your weight out of the way.” – Marc “Animal” MacYoung

Renound self-defence expert Marc “Animal” MacYoung calls this principle the “'great secret' of fighting”. In his book A Professional's Guide to Ending Violence Quickly, MacYoung describes, what he calls the “drop step”. MacYoung's “drop step” and the intermediate position I explored above have much in common as they share the same principle. MacYoung's version is, however, bigger—in ITF Taekwon-Do we find a similar version in other patterns, for instance in Hwa-Rang. Obviously bigger body shifting will require the use of the muscles in the form of side-steps, dodges, and so on. But, once the practitioner understand how this “falling” or “dropping” works, one can easily adjust the technique to different situations. MacYoung's book provides variations and enhancements to his “drop step”, which I'm sure sensible and/or creative students and instructors can infer on their own as well.

In my mind, the sine wave motion, primarily as it is used in the patterns and some pre-arranged sparring, is ultimately a training tool to learn how to easily “get your entire body weight in motion”, preferably with the least amount of effort, and where appropriate by using gravity for this purpose. In this regard, the initial part of the sine wave motion that moves the body into different intermediate positions is especially important as it teaches the practitioner to attain “motion through relaxation”..

13 May 2012

The Sine Wave Motion as a Mnemonic Device for Joint-Locks and Throws

In a previous post I referred to the sine wave motion as an icon—it is a simplification of a bigger principle, the Wave / Circle Principle. Martial arts such as Aikido, Hapkido, and Judo that are particularly known for their employment of the Wave / Circle Principle are also known for their throwing and joint-locking techniques and in this post I will give a cursory look at some throwing and joint-locking techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do to show how the sine wave motion is used as a mnemonic to learn the techniques more quickly and also to understand the Wave / Circle Principle.

In a typical ITF dojang one often hears instructors admonishing beginner students to “relax-rise-fall” or “down-up-down” as they learn to do the full sine wave motion in various techniques. The same instruction is often apt for teaching a variety of joint-locks and throws. In the video below I demonstrate a handful of joint-locking and throwing techniques where the full sine wave motion in its typical “down-up-down” form is employed. Often the first downward phase is used to move off the attack line or enter into the opponents space, under his centre of gravity; the upward motion is frequently used to gain leverage or to uproot (lift) the opponent; and the final downward phase is used to press down onto the joint against its normal range of motion, or to throw the opponent. It is significant to note that the thrower does not necessarily go down with the final downward phase himself—often it is the opponent who is “downed”, and so completes the full down-up-down sine wave motion.

In each of the techniques I demonstrate, I apply the essence of the stereotypic down-up-down sine wave motion that is so conspicuous of ITF Taekwon-Do.

When I teach joint-locking and throwing techniques to ITF students, I often start by using the sine wave motion as a mnemonic device, as such I find that the ITF students grasp the techniques much easier, because they have already done the down-up-down motion so many times. They also learn to be much more economic with their joint locking and throwing motions. Instead of multiple steps and complicated footwork, they understand that the sine wave motion is often used in a single step, so they realise that the technique ought not to take multiple steps to complete—a good joint-lock or throw is completed within one fluid sine wave motion. They also quickly learn that the sine wave motion can be shared—I do the initial phases, but the opponent does the final phase when he drops to the floor. Finally, doing these techniques with a clear awareness of the sine wave motion, the techniques are authentically ITF. It is not that other styles do it differently, it is merely that the student has an awareness of the same principles that are congruent in other ITF techniques—it is the same principle used in other parts of the style.

The sine wave motion further becomes a training tool to teach the unclear relationship between the Wave Principle and the Circle Principle. Since a “wave” and a “circle” do not at face-value look the same, students often do not understand that the Wave Principle and Circle Principle are in fact the same principle. However, once they use the sine wave motion as a mnemonic in throwing and joint-locking techniques, the relationship often dawns on them even when it is not pointed out. (That is exactly what happened to me.) Conversely, the Wave / Circle Principle is something better grasped kinetically than theoretically, and I find that a combination of the sine wave concept and joint locks and throws conveys the Wave / Circle Principle quite effectively.

"The wave motion is a rolling movement. It is continuous. In many advanced aikido movements, one can observe the rolling motion of the wave. The motion of the vertical wave movement is up-down, down-up, down-up-down, or up-down-up. One can also use the wave movement horisontally in an in-out, out-in, in-out-in, or out-in-out pattern." Advanced Aikido by Phong Thong Dang and Lynn Seiser (2006)

Once the students have become familiar with using the sine wave motion in its down-up-down form, it is very simple to teach them other techniques where the inverse (up-down-up) is the path for the basic motion, and later lateral oscillations (left-right-left or right-left-right) are explored. As they progress they realise how to manipulate the wave for whichever effect suits the technique, or how to use the circle; and with time they also come to understand that when the wave and the circle come together as a spiral, a whole new range of techniques open up to them.

Of course, using the sine wave motion in this way requires that one not have a superficial understanding of what the sine wave motion is. If you think the sine wave motion a goal in-and-of-itself, rather than realizing it to be a manifestation of the Wave / Circle Principle, it will seriously undermine its purpose and limit its value. On the other hand, once you recognise the value of the sine wave motion as a means to apply the Wave / Circle Principle, it becomes a wonderful instrument in ones arsenal. As a mnemonic it simplifies and economises seemingly complex techniques and is something I use with good effect when teaching ITF students joint-locks and throws.

06 May 2012

Intermediate Positions

In preparation for my post on the kinaesthetic value of ITF patterns, I realised that there is something else I need to cover first, namely ITF Taekwon-Do's intermediate positions / chamber positions that exist in the fundamental movements. The  intermediate positions / chamber positions are of utmost importance in ITF Taekwon-Do as they are actually the default positions (i.e. the position from which one starts a technique) in ITF Taekwon-Do. However, because they are most often seen at intermediate intervals, in other words between the end positions of techniques, they are often missed by some practitioners, while non-ITF initiates may not even realise their existence and the emphasis that they receive in good ITF dojang.

These positions are usually referred to as intermediate positions because they exist intermediately between the impact points of techniques.

Impact Points and Final Positions

Walking Stance Front Fore Fist
Middle Obverse Punch
Heavy emphasis is placed on the “final positions” of techniques—the impact points, i.e. those points of a technique's motion when the attacking or blocking tool engages the target [1]. These impact points, or final positions, are usually what defines a technique. They are usually what we see pictures of in Taekwon-Do books, and are the names that describe a technique. So when I say “Walking Stance Front Fore Fist Middle Obverse Punch,” I'm literally describing the final position of a motion: I'm describing the impact point where I hit an opponent at a middle height with the front of my fore fist of my obverse (leading) arm, from a walking stance. What this description fails to do is explain where I came from (what my previous position was) and how I got to the final position (what the intermediate motions involved). While the description locates the final position, it lacks to locate the beginning position.

Where do techniques end? Where do techniques begin?

Most people are inclined to think that the beginning position of one technique is merely the final position of the previous technique. In a manner of speaking this is true, because techniques are done sequentially, one following (and flowing into) the other. However, the end position of the previous technique is not authentically the start of the new technique, nor is the end position authentically the end of the previous technique.

Let me quickly explain what I mean by this. What we usually consider as the “end position” is not really the end position. Take for instance these quotes from the ITF Encyclopaedia: “Relax the muscles immediately after the fist has reached it's target” and “The moment the attacking tool reaches the target, pull it back to allow it to be ready for the next action while preventing a grab by the opponent.” (Vol. 3, p. 29 & 17). From this it is clear that the end position of a technique is not the moment of impact with the opponent, but actually the relaxation of the muscles and the pulling back of the limbs into a chambered position, ready for the next technique.

This relaxed chamber is the actual, authentic end position, it also becomes the authentic starting position for the next technique. This position is rightly called an intermediate position because it is the position directly after one technique's goal is reached (hitting the target) and before the next technique commences, but it is also rightly referred to as a chamber position because it is the default position from where the next technique is launched. It is never really referred to as the “start position”—even though this would be an appropriate description—in part because ITF Taekwon-Do is at its most advanced level not performed in steps, in singular techniques. Instead, at its advanced level ITF Taekwon-Do is a flow of elastic motions where a clear distinction between one technique and another is hard to identify.

In this sense the ITF Taekwon-Do patterns that plot singular techniques, conveniently stopping at the so-called end-position of each technique, should not be viewed as “advanced” Taekwon-Do. The patterns are a training tool that teaches specific skills; they are not a depiction of Taekwon-Do when performed at its highest, unfettered, combat level. The patterns are not actual mock fights. Yet, paradoxically, a mastery of the patterns often reveal a practitioners ability in higher level Taekwon-Do.

The patterns of ITF Taekwon-Do's mother art Taekkyeon [2] are probably much more representative of the type of unfettered flow I'm talking about. Looking at the fluid Taekkyeon pattern demonstration at the beginning of the video below, notice how there are hardly any “frozen” moments of impact, similar to the forms in Tai-Chi Chuan where there are no Karatesque end-position “stops”.

That these so-called end-positions that we see in the ITF patterns and other basic training should not be considered the actual final position of a technique we see in another practise that ITF Taekwon-Do is famous for—power breaking.

Power breaking is an actual separate category in ITF Taekwon-Do tournaments. (I don't know of any other martial art where power breaking is one of the main competition categories. Most martial arts compete only in sparring and forms.) In power breaking competitions there is a curious rule: the competitor has to demonstrate a guarding posture both before and after the break. If the guarding posture is not assumed both before and after the break, the competitor is disqualified! One would think that the actual breaking of the boards are all that matters, yet this rule brings home a very important lesson: the impact point—hitting and breaking the target—is not the end of the overall technique in ITF Taekwon-Do. These guarding postures before and after the breaking technique act as the intermediate positions, the default positions.

Examples of Two Intermediate Positions

So let's look at examples of intermediate or chamber positions. Up until now I have used the terms “intermediate position” and “chamber position” interchangeably, although there are actually differences between the two. The intermediate position is much better understood as the “relaxed ready” position, while the chamber position is the “charged ready” position. The “relaxed ready” position has almost no tension in the muscles and the centre of gravity is relatively low. On the other hand the chamber position often has the muscles “charged” with potential energy (the muscles are somehow comfortably pulled or compressed so as to take advantage of their elastic potential), and the centre of gravity is often slightly raised to charge it with extra potential energy, which is to be converted into kinetic energy. The kinetic energy is released when the body weight free falls into the technique, towards the impact point.  “Intermediate position” and “chamber position”  are therefore not synonymous, although they are often used interchangeably as they usually occur so closely together. For convenience sake, I will henceforth focus on the intermediate position.

Let's look at the pattern Chon-Ji. We will focus on the first two movements which can be seen in the YouTube video featuring Jaroslaw Suska, at 0:04-0:08. The series of frames below shows myself performing these first two movements.

The first two steps in the pattern Chon-Ji,
depicted in seven frames. 
There are two intermediate positions—or “relaxed ready positions”—within the first two steps of the pattern Chon-Ji. Movement #1 in Chon-Ji Teul turns the body 180 degrees left, into a Left Walking Stance Low Outer Forearm Outward Block; Movement #2 is a forward step into a Right Walking Stance Obverse Front Fore Fist (Middle) Punch. In the series of seven frames above we see the “end-position” of Movement #1 at Frame #4 and the “end-position” of Movement #2 in the last frame, Frame #7. We find the intermediate positions at Frames #2 and #5.

(These were photos taken with my mobile phone. I'm moving too fast for Frames #3 and #6 to be taken properly with my mobile phone camera. I tried to pose in those positions but since they are actual moments of accelerated rise and “free fall” such posing misrepresents the body positioning too much—for one, frozen posed pictures cannot show the accelerated forward momentum of the centre of gravity. It is worthy to note, however, that the “charged” chambered positions are to be found somewhere in the early parts of these blacked-out frames.)

Forwards Offensive (Relaxed Ready) Intermediate Position

The first intermediate position, as shown in Frame #2 is a little controversial, so I'd like us to first look at the second intermediate position, seen in Frame #5, first.

Frame #5: Forwards Offensive Relaxed Ready
Intermediate Position
From our previous technique (Low Forearm Block, Frame #4), we step forward into a walking stance punch. The ITF Encyclopaedia dictates that we should relax “the muscles immediately after the fist has reached it's target” and “pull it back.” This coincides with the first “relax” part of the full sine wave motion which include three phases: relax—rise—fall. Relaxing the arms means that the obverse punching arm is relaxed backward, while the shoulder and back muscles that keep the other fist on the hip is relaxed so that the rear hand is brought forward into a comfortable relaxed position. The hands form a comfortable “sparring guard” position in front of the body. Not only do the arms relax into a comfortable “relaxed ready” position, but also the legs follow suite. The forward knee relaxes somewhat causing a forward shift in the body, while the unnaturally straightened rear leg is relaxed and allowed to comfortably shift forward, bringing the centre of gravity forward. This is the typical forwards offensive (relaxed ready) intermediate position.

A beautiful photograph of
Mohammad Ali posing in a slightly
exaggerated Boxer's Stance while sub-
merged under water.
(Image Source
This position can be compared to the boxer's pose or the Jeet Kune Do stance, the advancing Muay Thai stance, and even the Xingyi posture when the straight strike has landed and the rear foot is slided in.

The advancing Muay Thai stance.
(Image Source)

In this part of the pattern Chon-Ji, the intermediate position is merely a pass through point, but in actual application this is the default position, i.e. authentic starting position, for a forward stepping walking stance punch. From this position the practitioner can merely continue the forward momentum and step into a forward stepping punch, or the practitioner can use the bent rear leg to thrust himself forward into a type of lunging punch. This position also allows the practitioner to push back with the front leg if a sudden retreat is required.

Defensive (Relaxed Ready) Intermediate Position

Now for the other intermediate position we see in Frame #2. I mentioned that it is controversial, not because this intermediate position is controversial in itself, it is not; rather, in this particular position in Chon-Ji it is not used by all instructors. Many instructors teach that one ought to fall directly from the Parallel Ready Stance (Frame #1) into the block (Frame #3) in a type of “drop step”. Strategically this makes sense as it is quicker. However, I practise the motion with the intermediate position (Frame #2) because I believe practising to move through the intermediate positions is one of the purposes of pattern training in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Frame #2: Defensive Intermediate Position
So let's look at the intermediate position in Frame #2. From the Parallel Ready Stance the weight is shifted to the right leg, which is also weighted (“rooted”) into a relaxed bend of the knee; simultaneously the hips are slightly turned towards the attacker and the arms are brought up into a defensive guard. This is the typical defensive (relaxed ready) intermediate position. Moving into this position coincides with the initial relax-phase of the full sine wave motion. The defensive relaxed intermediate position is the beginning position for many defensive (blocking) techniques in ITF Taekwon-Do. In this case, as a defensive pose the body's centre is shifted away from the attacker—this is not always the case, but is typical for defensive poses.

One position in Xingyi with the weight
towards the back. (Image Source)
This type of body positioning for a  “starting position” with the weight primarily towards the rear leg is also observed in most martial arts, including such styles as Xingyi. Shifting the weight to the back is often used to move one's vital spots further away from the opponent's reach. In ITF Taekwon-Do we may actually do a drop step backwards in a shifting motion, for example the first movement in the pattern Gae-Baek, in which case the position would act as an “ending position”.

The pattern Gae-Bae starts by falling
back into an L-stance X-block. This pose
is not much different from the typical
defensive intermediate position. 
However the typical defensive (relaxed ready) intermediate position need not be done in a retreating manner; there are actually examples of a forward moving defensive intermediate position in Chon-Ji Teul—it occurs, for instance in the intermediate motion towards Movement #3 in Chon-Ji Teul, as you turn around 180 degrees towards an opponent behind you.

Intermediate Position Aspects

I've only shown two examples of intermediate positions here. The elementary pattern Chon-Ji actually contains more intermediate positions. One, for instance, is the backwards offensive (relaxed ready) intermediate position which resembles the defensive relaxed intermediate position in that the weight is shifted more onto the rear leg, but with the hands brought up in a boxing chamber, rather than a defensive cross-guard.

The important thing to remember is that the intermediate positions are not kept for long periods at a time. Often intermediate positions are merely significant nodes on a path through which the practitioner moves as he or she transition from one technique to another. However, the positions are nonetheless the default positions from which most techniques are launched. The “default position” (or “neutral position” as my friend Stuart Anslow calls them) is a point in the motion where one has not over committed and can still change your technique mid-motion.

The intermediate positions are the “rooting” positions in ITF Taekwon-Do. These are the positions where our centre of gravity is preparatively lowered to root our techniques, our bodies are most relaxed, our perceptions most aware, our minds most focussed. Not that any of these things are less important elsewhere on the motion path of our techniques, yet the intermediate position is a moment of re-centring, of coming back to this default pose of internal (mental) and external (physical) balance.

It is futher more important not to miss the fact that the default position in ITF Taekwon-Do is most often not a stationary position. While the so-called “end-positions”—i.e. the impact points—where the attacking or blocking tool hits its target could be described as a stationary, momentary “frozen” point, and is therefore very easy to photograph and describe, the default position (the intermediate positions) in ITF Taekwon-Do are dynamic positions. The significance of this cannot be overemphasized! At the same time, I should not be misunderstood to mean that they cannot and do not, at times function as stationary positions. The fact that we practise our “default” or “neutral” or “chamber”—or whatever you wish to call it—position usually as a dynamic, transitory position, does not negate the fact that we often enough also come to rest in this position. As I have mentioned before, the intermediate position “is the actual, authentic end position, it also becomes the authentic starting position for the next technique” and we do at times stop our motion here. Many practitioners use the forwards offensive relaxed ready (intermediate) position not as an intermediate node, but as their default sparring stance, in the way a boxer or Muay Thai practitioner may use it. Similarly, I often find myself using the defensive relaxed ready position as my sparring stance.


1. The term “impact point” is potentially misleading as it could be thought that this point merely touches the surface of the target, when in fact the attacking tool or blocking tool is usually aimed beyond the surface. The true target is not the surface, but beyond the surface, so the impact point is a point that entails the penetration of the body. Other terms such as penetration point or breaking point could possibly have sufficed better, but “penetration” and “breaking” also have other connotative meanings and not all techniques are always used to penetrate or brake—some techniques push, pull, derail, etc. For now I will settle with “impact point” and refer to the point at which the attacking or blocking tool impacts with the true target (not merely the surface of the body). Taekwon-Do students are usually taught that the actual target is about two inches beyond the surface.

2. I call Taekkyeon the “mother” of ITF Taekwon-Do, while Shotokan Karate is its “father.” See more here.

Totally Tae Kwon Do

For the May 2012 issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #39) I submitted the recent article I wrote for the Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival: "The Potential Value of Martial Arts for Ostracised Korean Children". My submission for the magazine (starting on p. 65) is not much different from the blog post, except that I provided some photos of Korean children. As always, the magazine provides a wide spectrum of articles; I'm sure there is something of interest for every Taekwon-Do enthusiast.

01 May 2012

The Patterns Are Not Dallyeon

In my previous post on The Value of ITF Patterns (Part 1), I focussed on their intangible contributions: firstly, the patterns act as a vehicle for the dissemination of Oriental Philosophy, Korean History, and Korean Culture. Secondly, unlike Karate's kata where their development was primarily functional, the ITF patterns were from the very beginning intended to have an aesthetic quality. They are therefore a type of kinetic artwork, poetry in motion, a martial dance. (Another intangible value of the patterns that I alluded to—but did not elaborate on, as it is speculation—was that the patterns could possibly have an ascetic function; in other words, they could potentially be used meditatively to assist in spiritual growth.)

I hope to discuss the more tangible value of the patterns soon. Particularly, I want to focus on the “kinaesthetic” training value of patterns. However, before I do that, it is important to address a misconception that one of the main purposes of the patterns is physical conditioning.

Is a Chief Purpose for Doing Patterns the Physical Exercise? -- Not in ITF

The idea that a chief function of pattern practise is aerobic exercise, strength training, and so on, is mistaken—at least as far as the purpose of patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do is concerned. This misconception regarding the ITF patterns are held by non-ITF practitioners not familiar with the ITF pedagogy, but strangely also by some ITF practitioners as well; maybe because vigorous training of the patterns does indeed cause exhaustion and can be good aerobic exercise.[1]

Recently Dan Djurdjevic, one of the martial art bloggers I particularly respect, discussed “Forms: their core purpose”. For him, as I am sure is the case for many martial artists, a principle value of the forms / patterns is physical exercise.[2] He mentions for instance how in the forms the stances are deliberately low and “normal stepping,” which is impractical in actual fighting, are deliberately employed to create “load”, i.e. it is made difficult on purpose. In other words, a big part of form training is for their value as aerobic exercise and strength training—to condition the body.

Body conditioning is not a primary reason for pattern training in ITF Taekwon-Do. In his description of the patterns General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle composer of the patterns, mentions certain tangible things that one can gain from their training:

“Thus pattern practice enables the student to go through many fundamental movements in series, to develop sparring techniques, improve flexibility of movements, master body shifting, build muscles and breath control, develop fluid and smooth motions, and gain rhythmical movements” (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 8, p. 13). 

To “build muscles” may be considered body conditioning, but it is clear from the quotation that it is one of many points and is actually grammatically linked with “breath control”. From this, the type of muscle building that occurs in the practise of patterns in ITF does not seem to be focussed on fitness and strength training—an important value espoused by my friend Dan.

When the ITF patterns have body conditioning in mind, their moments are often very conspicuous (and dreaded by practitioners). Obvious examples are the slow motion kicks some patterns such as Moon Moo. Since these kicks are deliberately done in slow motion, they clearly have no practical value—you will never kick somebody in slow motion in real life. The value of these particular movements are obviously for strengthening the leg muscles and developing balance, but these obvious conditioning actions are sporadic.

(There is also, of course, an aesthetic value to the slow motion techniques.)

The Patterns Are Not Dallyeon

The different components of physical training of ITF Taekwon-Do is illustrated in the ITF Encyclopaedia as a composition cycle, made up of five elements: fundamental movements, patterns, sparring, dallyeon, and self-defence.

"Cycle of Taekwon-Do"
Source: ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1, p. 238.

Dallyeon is the only element in the cycle that is not translated from Korean into English. So what is dallyeon?

One type of "dallyeon" -- Image Source
The Korean word “dallyeon” 단련 is made up of two characters, which are pronounced individually as “dan” [단] and “lyeon” [련], but as “dallyeon” when combined. They are in turn based on two Hanja (Chinese) characters: 鍛鍊. The first 鍛 means to “forge”, “temper” or “refine” and is usually used in relation to metal; e.g. to forge or temper steel. The second character 鍊 also refers to metals, typically to “smelt” metal. In Korean “dallyeon” is typically understood as some type of strengthening or improving action. It can be used to refer to physical training, mental training, or even spiritual cultivation. In English we have generally adopted the word “conditioning” as a translation for “dallyeon” in ITF Taekwon-Do.

With regards to physical training, dallyeon refers to all types of training that will “temper” the person, including general fitness, stamina and strength training, the hardening of the attacking and blocking tools, flexibility training, reflex training, line drills, partner drills, combination drills (kicking-and-punching combos), sparring and so on. Dallyeon should also be understood to include training of the mind and character.

South Korean soldiers engaging in dallyeon. Training in the snow requires
both physical and mental endurance.
Image Source
While pattern training in other martial arts may have as a function body conditioning (i.e. fitness, stamina and strength training), this is not the core purpose or goal of the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do. The goal of pattern training in ITF Taekwon-Do is not dallyeon. Conditioning (dallyeon) is viewed as a separate and extremely important activity. It is true that the composition cycle shows how one element flows into the next in a never ending cycle so that all elements interact on and overlap each other, making it difficult to pinpoint where one element ends and another begins, but we also see that  “dallyeon” and “patterns” are not adjacent in the cycle. The patterns are therefore not really used for conditioning. This means that within the ITF pedagogy removing the extra “load” from the patterns is not much of an issue, because the “load”—the “forging” and “tempering” of the body—occurs elsewhere.[3]

A comparison of an ITF
Walking Stance (above) and
a Shotokan Karate Forward
Stance (below). Notice that the
ITF stance is not as deep as the
Karate equivalent.
(Image Source)
In a follow-up post Dan explains in detail how the sine wave motion that is part and parcel of the ITF patterns negate this conditioning value that patterns have in many martial arts. The reason being that in order to perform the sine wave motion the practitioner has to be relaxed. (This is indeed one of the primary purposes of the ITF patterns that I will discuss in a future post.) Dan also mentions how the stances in martial art patterns are often very deep and low in order to “load” the movement for conditioning purposes. What we find in Taekwon-Do is that the stances are actually seldom as low as, for instance, the Karate stances stances in many other traditional martial arts. And even where the stances are performed low, the correct application of the sine wave motion actually teaches the practitioner to “roll” out of the difficult position using the sine wave motion—again, the conditioning value of deep stances are diminished by the application of the sine wave motion in the patterns.

Dan is astute and correct in his observation that ITF patterns have lost their “load”. If this was the case for another martial art where patterns have a conditioning function it would indeed be a serious loss, as Dan rightly points out. However, this is not a major purpose for the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do. In ITF Taekwon-Do conditioning is found chiefly in dallyeon.

The Way We Move in the Patterns Are Not the Way We Move in a Fight

In his posts “Forms: their core purpose” and “Sine wave vs. the core purpose of forms” Dan's main focus is on the value of the forms to provide a “dynamic context”, something I very much agree with and hope to write on in a future post regarding the value of patterns. One critique Dan has of the sine wave motion and it's manifestation in the patterns is that while the patterns make for a “dynamic context”, the slowed down characteristic of the sine wave motion causes unnecessary “dead time”. My response to this is twofold:

First, the sine wave motion is not ever present in ITF Taekwon-Do. Although it is a very conspicuous part of the patterns and some fundamental movements, it is not employed to the same degree in other parts of the art. And since the patterns are not to be understood as “a template for fighting” in ITF Taekwon-Do, the presence of the strong sine wave motion in the patterns is not a serious issue, because the stepping needed for fighting (in the meele range) are actually practised elsewhere in the system, like in some line drills and the higher forms of step sparring (dynamic context drills), semi-free and free sparring, and self-defence training.

Secondly, Dan explains the “dead time” as that time in natural stepping between when you start to initiate movement (i.e. push with the rear leg) until the time it takes your body to actually transfer momentum forward. He contrasts this with drop stepping: “The drop step is the very opposite of the natural step in that your front foot initiates movement not your back. / When you lift your front foot you should notice something very different from natural stepping: you start to fall forwards immediately. There is absolutely no delay between your foot lifting off the ground and your forward force being exerted.” The interesting thing about the sine wave motion when correctly applied to natural stepping is that it actually creates forward momentum from the get-go just like the drop step. I explain this peculiar motion without movement in another post..

In summary, the patterns are not truly dallyeon-of-the-body; in other words, their function is not really aerobic or strength training. Having said this, the mere act of “going through the motions” does have an exercise value. You can get quite exhausted from pattern practise. Still, in its essence, the chief purpose is not dallyeon. Also, the patterns are not viewed as “templates for fighting” in ITF Taekwon-Do. Therefore, possible “dead time” caused by the slowness of the sine wave motion in patterns is not a major concern for the ITF practitioner, because we do not consider the patterns the platform where we learn how to step for real fighting (in the melee range).

In a future post I will discuss what I consider to be the kinaesthetic principles that the ITF patterns aim to teach us. Until then, make sure to read Dan Djurdjevic's “Forms: their core purpose”.


1. Just because a chief function of patterns is not dallyeon (conditioning) doesn't mean that conditioning doesn't occur. All movement will translate into some level of conditioning. In Wushu (modern Chinese kung-fu) the main purpose is aesthetic performance, however the physical exersion required of the Wushu forms makes it impossible to downplay the value these forms have on body conditioning. In Wushu one cannot seperate the aesthetic goal with the strenuous physical exertion. My argument is, however, that conditioning is not a main purpose in ITF Taekwon-Do. Or put differently, although physical exercise is inevitable during pattern practise, that is not its main goal, to such a degree that one can separate the goal of the ITF Taekwon-Do patterns from physical dallyeon

2. Note that the main idea of Dan Djurdjevic's post is not that forms are primarily used for conditioning, that seems to be a secondary dual function. For him the main purpose of the forms are to provide a dynamic context for practising fundamental movements. 

3. I don't think that dallyeon-of-the-body truly occurs in the patterns, but there is a strong case to be made for some type of dallyeon-of-the-mind that could occur through pattern training, seeing as patterns are often considered a form of mobile meditation.