15 April 2012

Poetry in Motion: A Poetic Interpretation of the Patterns

In a recent post on the value of patterns (Part I) I referred to the essay below, which was published in Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine, Issue #15. Since I plan to soon continue my discussion on the value of patterns, I thought it good to also post the essay here.

Poetry in Motion: A Poetic Interpretation of the Patterns

I cannot remember if it is how my instructor introduced patterns to me or if my own love of poetry sparked the comparison, but I have always regarded patterns as poetry in motion.

One of the things I do to fill my life with meaning is to teach literature, and particularly poetry, as a university lecturer. As a scholar of poetry I am sensitive to what is sometimes known as poetic devices; in other words, the different techniques poets use to craft their verse. As a scholar of Taekwon-Do I have found that some of the same “poetic devices” are present in the patterns.

I have always thought of the individual techniques as words and compared combinations of techniques to phrases. A poem is a composition of aesthetic phrases. A Taekwon-Do pattern is a composition of combat combinations (a number of combat techniques flowing into a sequence).

There are numerous parallels I find between poetry and patterns; one poetic device which is worth considering is probably the one most people associate with poetry, namely rhyme. Many an aspirant poet makes the grave mistake of thinking that poems have to rhyme and will therefore force verse lines to end with rhyming words in an arbitrary fashion. This makes anyone well read in poetry cringe as we know that the mere presence of rhyme does not guarantee good poetry. The result of such forced rhyme creates, at best, cute nursery rhymes. While the master poets may employ rhyme, it is never used arbitrarily—rhyming just for the sake of rhyme. Instead, since every rhyme causes the rhymed words to stand out, the poet knows that emphasis is given to rhyming words. Rhyming is therefore used to emphasize meaning and to create denotative significance between words.

Following I would like to give some examples from the Chang Hon patterns of “rhyme” and how being aware of such rhyming can help you understand the patterns better.

Let’s consider the pattern Chon-Ji. If I were to ask you to identify the rhyme in Chon-Ji you would most likely tell me that the movements that are performed on the left-hand side are repeated on the right-hand side. Such an assessment would be correct. There are many repetitions of movements on different lines, all constituting “rhyme” in Chon-Ji. However, to really get value out of these observations one needs to ask how the rhyming gives meaning to the rhyming parts, i.e. to the similar movements. If it is merely the repetition of the same movements in symmetrical fashion purely for the sake of repetition (i.e. symmetry), there is no real deeper meaning. What we have then is merely a nursery rhyme.

Mr. Jaroslaw Suska performs the pattern Chon-Ji in the video below. 

(It may be true that the lower ranking patterns have some nursery rhyme quality to them, and that is as it should be. A child immediately introduced to T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” would be completely ill equipped to understand it. No, the child should first learn the nursery rhymes and then progress to, maybe the Romantics, next be exposed to Dickinson and Whitman, later to some of the Imagists and other Modernists, and then only do you expose them to T. S. Eliot; for only after a systematic progression in poetic difficulty is the reader equipped with the tools and experience to understand the grand poems, such as “The Wasteland.” So too martial art practitioners and especially novices should progress systematically through the patterns and not be too eager to learn new patterns until they have thoroughly familiarized themselves with the material at their current level.)

In trying to understand poems, one should endeavor to allow the poems to interpret themselves. Permit different poetic devices, such as rhyme, to highlight certain ideas or “significances.” Such significant ideas then become what we may call “motifs,” which are the controlling ideas of the poem. One should not merely be aware of the symmetrical repetition of movements, but should pertinently look for meaningful repetition. It is this meaningful repetition that I will henceforth refer to as “rhyme.” Here is an example of meaningful repetition that creates a motif in Chon-Ji. One “rhyme” in Chon-Ji is the middle section attack—the walking stance middle front punch. Another “rhyme” in the pattern is the inner forearm outward middle block.  These two techniques, the middle front punch and the middle front block creates one motif. What the practitioner learns is that the solution to a middle front punch is a middle front block. Such “problem-solution” motifs are rampant in the patterns. Take for instance the black belt pattern Choong-Jang. The solution to the knee kick, movement #19, is provided later as the twin palm pressing block, movement #24. Often an earlier technique seems to anticipate its counter later in the pattern.

Using an inner forearm outward block in an L-stance, Jay Kang (red belt) defends against the punch by Tae Hyeong (green belt). Both the problem (the walking stance front punch) and the solution (the L-stance inner forearm outward block) are derived from the pattern Chon-Ji. 

Another type of rhyme that causes a motif is when the same technique is repeated with different variations. For instance in the pattern Toi-Gye the X-block is used twice, but in different ways. It is used first, in movement #7, as a walking stance pressing X-block and second, in movement #29, when one jumps into an X-stance pressing X-block.

Being attentive to such rhyming and motifs in patterns, one can often find solutions to questions. In a previous issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do Michael Munyon raised a question along these lines:
“In Yul-Gok, why do we perform movement #1 as a measuring technique at the shoulder line yet we strike center line? What is the purpose of the measure and why are we measuring at that rank versus an earlier rank?” 
Mr. Jaroslaw Suska performs the pattern Yul-Gok in the video below. 

In other words, what is the function of this “measuring technique” (movements #1 and #4)? As a scholar of poetry, and reading the patterns as poems, the answer is to me quite obvious, but allow me to guide you through my analysis.

This specific combination consists of three movements. The first movement moves the arm in a slight arc horizontally to the outside in line with the shoulder line. It is then followed by an attack (two double punches). The rhythm is first slow (or at least at normal pace), then accelerated. Where else in Yul-Gok do we find this motif: a motion where the arm is moved in a slight arc towards the outside followed by an attack, with the rhythm starting out normal but then accelerated? Actually, we find this motif repeated for at least two other unique combinations. The first other unique combination that starts with an arm moving horizontally to the outside followed by attacks (with progressive acceleration) is the sequence of movements starting at #7 (#7-10 or #11-14)—the inner forearm outward block, followed by a front snap kick and the two fast motion punches. The same motif, but again a different combination of techniques, is encountered at #15-17 or #18-20. The palm hooking block moves the arm out horizontally in a slight arc to the shoulder line, then the rhythm is accelerated as the next palm hooking block and front punch is done in a continuous motion. Although the second technique in this combination is a block and not an immediate attack, the general tone is similar to the previous combinations. (Mr Anslow picked up on this tone and therefore aptly proposed in his Ch’ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul that alternative interpretations for the second palm hooking block is to understand this second movement as an “attack” to manipulate the opponent’s head.)

Keeping our motif in mind, let’s return to our original combination, the “measuring technique” followed by the two attacks. The other two combinations clearly show that in each case where the arm is moved horizontally and in a slight arc to the shoulder line (an inner forearm outward block or a palm hooking block), it functions as a defensive technique. Using the poetic interpretive method the “measuring technique” ought also to be interpreted as a block. Well, in the general way it is performed, is it closer to the inner forearm block or the palm hooking block? Certainly the hooking block. In my assessment, the “measuring technique” is nothing other than a hooking block with the forearm, instead of the palm, used as the blocking tool. Consider the application: Your opponent is in front of you and attacks your middle section with a punch. You step into a sitting stance, simultaneously moving your forearm in a slight arc horizontally to the side, intercepting the oncoming punch with your outer forearm and redirecting it to the side. You then follow up with two well placed punches to the ribs of the attacker, which will be on your centre line.

The three photos above illustrate the first three movements in the pattern Yul Gok. When Jay Kang (red belt) is attacked with a front punch by Tae Hyeong (green belt), Jay Kang steps off the centre line into a sitting stance while redirecting the oncoming punch with a forearm hooking block (i.e., “measuring technique”), then counter attacks with two punches to Tae Hyeong’s ribs. 

The question raised by Michael Munyon included “why are we measuring at that rank versus an earlier rank”? If one understands this “measuring technique,” as I have proposed, to be a forearm hooking block, then it is simply a similar situation like we saw in Toi-Gye where the same technique is merely repeated in different variations. It is not that we are suddenly introduced to a measuring technique at this level; rather, it is that we are introduced to hooking blocks (both the forearm hooking block and the palm hooking block) at this level.

A poetic reading of the patterns can aid you in identify motifs in the patterns. This will help you see connections within the pattern that may otherwise go unnoticed. It can also be a method of interpreting the patterns and finding solutions to some questionable techniques. Apart from rhyme, other poetic devices such as understanding how verse lines function (either as end-stop lines or run-on lines); rhythm created through the use of stressed and unstressed syllables; rhetoric devices such as repetitions and parallelism; figures of speech like imagery, simile and metaphor; and so on, can all assist in interpreting the patterns. Of course, the poetic reading of patterns is not the only interpretive method available. Other methods of interpretation may include an interpretation focused on martial strategy, or an interpretation focused on self-defence application. However, since patterns are probably the most specifically aesthetic segment of the art, it would make sense to augment your interpretation of the patterns by also employing methods of interpretation that focus on patterns as works of art. While a poetic interpretation is one such a method as this essay proved, one could easily apply interpretations methods borrowed from other art forms, like interpretative methods from the visual arts (e.g. painting and sculpture) and performing arts (e.g. dance). Using a variety of interpretative methods will enhance and enrich your study of the patterns.

14 April 2012

Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival

Martial Arts Perth

I wrote my previous post, on the potential value of martial arts training for ostracised Korean children, specifically as a contribution to the first Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival, organized by Colin Wee from Joong Do Kwan Tae Kwon Do in Australia. For this carnival several martial art bloggers set out to contemplate the topic of bullying and contribute to the anti-bullying discussion.

Bullying is often dismissed as mere child's play. This is quite unfortunate as many children that are bullied suffer severely--physically and emotionally. It is particularly this latter type of scarring that often goes unseen, but which potentially leaves life long scars. It is for this reason that this topic deserves our contemplation, especially within the martial arts circles, for I believe that the martial arts have the potential to bring hope and healing to victims of bullying. Read more about the carnival by clicking on the logo above.

I'm happy to mention that my contribution received an "Outstanding Submission" Award for "Most Eye-Opening Discussion". I am, of course, only one voice in the discussion. Each carnival submission brings a unique take on the topic and for anyone interested in anti-bullying I highly recommend you to read the other submissions as well.  Below are a list of the other contributors to the Anti-Bullying Blogging Carnival with links to their submissions.

12 April 2012

The Potential Value of the Martial Arts for Ostracised Korean Children

Image Source
There is a phenomenon in Korea known as “wangtta.” The word is used as both a noun—a person is said to be a wangtta—and an adjective—a situation is described as wangtta. I will use the term primarily in its noun form, as it is easier to grasp within the English idiom and from a Western paradigm. Simplistically, a wangtta is usually a child that is an outcast from his or her peer group. As an outcast the wangtta may experience various forms of bullying, including verbal and physical abuse. However the most common and severe form of bullying for the wangtta is ostracism, a complete disregard for the person—literally treating the wangtta as if he or she doesn't exist.

While ostracism can be terrible for any child, in a group-oriented society like Korea the effect is especially severe. Like any group-oriented society, being part of a group is fundamental to the person's sense of value, and so being ostracised is cause for terrible shame. In fact, it is not unheard of for Korean children that are treated as wangtta to commit suicide. This is a tragic, but very real occurrence in Korea.

So what anti-bullying, i.e. anti-wangtta, strategies has the martial arts to offer?

In this context anti-bullying self-defence techniques are only somewhat relevant because the real abuse is not as much physical as emotional. For these children being physically abused is paradoxically sufferable. Accounts I heard of Koreans having suffered being bullied says that one just have to take it and wait it out. Eventually somebody else will become the wangtta and the focus will shift away from you to someone else. The paradox here is that if one is physically bullied, it means that your existence is actually still somewhat acknowledged. You are not yet completely ignored, you are not yet treated with utter disregard, as if you do not exist. Like a child so hungry for attention that even negative attention would suffice, the physically bullied child is often willing to endure it. It seems that the most dangerous form of bullying in the group-oriented society is to completely ostracise the child, for it is often these children that are so lonely that they kill themselves. Wanting to be acknowledged, having ones existence recognised, is so enduring to the Oriental psyche that it forms a prominent motif in many children's animation. I think, for instance, of the famous Japanese manga and anime series Naruto, in which one of the main driving forces for the main character is to be recognised and accepted by his village and peers. Naruto's journey from an outcast to an accepted and acknowledged member of society forms a crucial motif to the plot, and I believe this is part of its popularity not only in its native Japan, but also here in Korea. Of course, although I believe ostracism to possibly be the worst form of bullying for the Korean child, it would be ungrounded to downplay the awful effects of verbal and physical bullying altogether.

In my opinion the greatest thing that the martial arts can provide the ostracised child is a community, a group to belong to. I guess it is possible that the child may be ostracised even within the dojang, but with the close interaction of the observant and caring instructor, opportunity for bullying is much less. Furthermore, a sense of “group” is often inevitable in martial art training. Even when a child is ignored by other members, activities such as pattern training, where everybody moves on the count of the instructor, creates a synthetic group. In that moment of synchronised movement, all the members act as one group, which includes even the ostracised child. Other partner work activities such as pre-arranged sparring further enhance a sense of “group.” A child that may in other circumstances ignore the wangtta is in the dojang forced to interact during the partner exercises under the watchful eye of the instructor. Furthermore, many martial artists can testify how the dojang has become a second “family” and even people that may not have anything in common outside of the dojang are bonded by the commonality of their shared recreation. The “sacred” space of the dojang often acts as catalyst for friendships that may not have formed under other circumstances. Hopefully the dojang could provide the ostracised child with similar relationships that many of us have received from our martial arts training. If nothing else, at least the dojang can provide an alternative space for the child—away from school or other negative environments—where he or she is not the wangtta.

Furthermore, it is often the more shy and timid children that are bullied. While martial art training may not change ones personality (it won't necessarily make an extrovert of an introvert), it does seem to make one more comfortable in one's own skin. Feeling comfortable in your body—aided by the ability to move with agility and grace—undoubtedly has a positive effect on one's self-esteem. The slow but constant progression in ability, skill and rank becomes a new standard of judgement for the child. Even the most inept child will, through constant training, progress in skill and rank. Respect for rank is part and parcel of the dojang, so the child that are shunned outside of the dojang receives—although it may be superficial—respect and acknowledgement from lower ranking students inside the dojang. As the child's self-esteem improves it often causes a series of ripples: the child feels more confident, and as a result looks more confident, which lessons the likelihood of looking like an easy target to be bullied, and may potentially cause the bullying to stop.

While I do not dismiss anti-bullying self-defence techniques which the child may possibly learn during martial art training, I think the real value of martial art training for an outcast (a wangtta) is found in the sense of community that a dojang can provide. The dojang is potentially a new (“safe”) space for the child to become part of a “family” of fellow martial art practitioners. The training and progression in the martial art also provides the child with another criteria of judgement—one that is not arbitrary, but based on a syllabus to whom everyone is held. With consistent training the “wangtta” can prove him or herself and move to a position of respect. This, and the positive affects of physical training, has the potential to build the child's self-esteem, which in turn lessens the likelihood of being victimized.

I'm certain that such positive effects are just as relevant in individual-oriented societies as in group-oriented societies.

10 April 2012

The Value of the ITF Patterns (Part 1): Korean Philosophy, History and Culture, and Aesthetics

In a previous post I argued that the ITF patterns should not be considered, like in Karate for example, as purely a template for fighting. While the patterns may provide us with some fighting strategies and self-defence applications, they ought not be viewed purely, or even chiefly, as “combatives manuals.”

Dr. Bruce D. Clayton argues in his book Shotokan's Secret that: “Karate kata are combatives manuals, which contain no poetry” and that the kata are without “symbolism” (p. 197). This is definitely not the case for the ITF patterns. While I am convinced that there is much we can learn about ways of moving (kinaesthetics) and even some fighting strategies and self-defence application, the ITF patterns offer another, albeit less tangible, contribution. The patterns are used as a vehicle for the transmittal of Oriental philosophical principles, and Korean history and culture. They are also to be understood as mediums for artistic expression.

Let's first look at Dr. Clayton's statement that “Karate kata . . . contains no poetry.” I do not believe that he means—or if he does, it will be contested by many a karateka—that the kata are not aesthetically pleasing. In other words, I don't think Dr. Clayton means that when Karate kata are performed well, that they are not things of beauty. Anyone that has seen a masterful execution of a kata will agree that it can indeed be a thing of great beauty. Even so, the beauty of the Karate kata lies in the masterful execution, not in the thing itself. In their original creation, the purpose of the martial art forms, including the Karate forms, were not to be beautiful, but to be practical; not “poetry” but tools of training.

The Hanja character "Sa" [ 사 ], which
translates as "scholar" and "gentleman".
In Japanese Kanji this character is also
associated with samurai. 
The ITF patterns share with Karate kata the idea that they are training tools. However, Gen. Choi (the chief composer of the 24 ITF patterns) also set out to make poetry. He was an accomplished calligrapher and we know that this influenced some of the floor plans of the patterns. We are told, for instance, that the diagrams of the patterns Yul-Gok and Toi-Gye represents the Chinese (Hanja) character for “scholar”, that the diagram of the pattern Juche is based on the Chinese character for “mountain”—which has symbolic meaning—and so on. The layout of the ITF patterns do therefore not purely have practical consideration, but also symbolic and aesthetic consideration. Like a Chinese character drawn by a calligrapher, they purposefully convey both meaning and beauty—not unlike poetry.

In a previous post and subsequent article in Totally Tae Kwon Do, I proposed that the first pattern, Chon-Ji, is in fact placing ITF Taekwon-Do within a particular philosophical world view, a particularly Korean interpretation of Daoist thought. I doubt that the Karata kata sets out to deliberately convey a philosophical world view. Of course, maybe my understanding of the Karate kata is too limited, and I have missed this, but using the kata to purposefully disseminate a philosophy is not the idea I get from such Karate scholars as Dr. Clayton. Yet, using a form to communicate a particular world view is not unique to ITF Taekwon-Do. We find it in the Chinese internal martial arts: The Tai Chi Chuan and Baqua Zhang forms are based on the Tai Chi (Yin-Yang) and the I-Ching, which are derivatives of the Dao. I don't know if these two martial arts actually set out to “teach” this world view. ITF Taekwon-Do, however, does use the pattern Chon-Ji to teach the practitioner a particular world view, albeit simplistically. The ITF Taekwon-Do beginner is forced to learn the meaning of Chon-Ji; “heaven and earth,” which is the Korean interpretation of the two opposing elements of the Dao, and then practise this elementary form, so that it becomes an object-lesson.

The first pattern, Chon-Ji, sets Taekwon-Do within a specific world view, the next pattern, Dan-Gun, contextualises Taekwon-Do within the historic lineage of the Korean people. The pattern Dan-Gun is named after the mythological “legendary founder of Korea in the year 2333 B.C.” The following pattern, Do-San, introduces one of the most important values of the Korean people—education—and one of the greatest Korean concerns—freedom from oppression. “Do-San” was the pseudonym of Ahn Chang-Ho, a freedom activist who “devoted [his entire life] to furthering the education of Korea and its independence movement.” Just a cursory look at the meanings of these first three patterns already makes it clear that they are intended to teach the performer about Korean philosophy, history and culture. (ITF Encyclopaedia, Vol. 8., p. 15.)

The "Heaven Hand" posture.
Symbolism and meaning are not merely build into the floor plan or attached to the name of the pattern, even some specific movements carry symbolic meaning. The pattern Choong-Moo “ends with a left hand attack . . . to symbolize [Admiral Yi Soon-Sin's] regrettable death, having no chance to show his unrestrained potentiality . . .” (Ibid., p. 16). While some techniques such as this left hand attack have symbolic and combative value, some techniques are arguably without any combative value, and are most probably only symbolic, for instance the “Heaven Hand.” It would not be impossible to find possible applications for such symbolic movements, but that would very much be a subjective interpretation. (Seeing as the patterns are “poetry”, there is, of course, nothing wrong with such subjective interpretations.)

The ITF patterns are clearly not merely, or even primarily, “combatives manuals”. They have an additional purpose in ITF Taekwon-Do. Instead of “combatives manuals” they are used as textbooks on Korean philosophy, history and culture.

To return to the aesthetic quality of the patterns: I already mentioned that General Choi was a calligrapher with an acute sense of aesthetics, and I believe that this seeped into his aspiration for the patterns. He did not consider the patterns to be merely practical training tools, but also as works of kinetic art. He mentioned, for instance, that a part of a pattern is its “characteristic beauty” (Ibid., p. 13). Aesthetic considerations had been part of Taekwon-Do since its beginning. In the preamble to the ITF Taekwon-Do Charter, General Choi lists “beauty” as one of the things he hoped Taekwon-Do would bring about (Volume 1, p. 12), and in his discussion on the principles he used in designing the style, Principle #11 is that “Each movement should be harmonious and rhythmical so that Taekwon-Do is aesthetically pleasing” (Ibid., p. 41). Aesthetic considerations get the back seat in real fighting and I'm certain that even the General would not insist that you concern yourself with aesthetics while fighting for your life. But there is a place in Taekwon-Do where aesthetics can get primacy, and that is in the patterns. The patterns, while they do teach us skills that may be valuable for fighting, are nonetheless “poetry”. And I must say that having understood them as such have actually helped me to gain from them technical / strategic understanding that I probably would not have learned otherwise; see, for example, my essay “Poetry in Motion”.

The aesthetic factor of the patterns need not be feared as an ultimately useless, non-practical pursuit. Beauty in the martial arts are often linked with efficacy. In his book Herding the Ox: The Martial Arts as Moral Metaphor, Dr. John J. Donohue mentions a Japanese national Kenpo champion whom was asked by admirers what his training secret is, to which he replied: “There is no secret . . . You just need to remember to strive always to make your kendo beautiful. Not fast. Not flashy. Only beauty matters. Everything else will follow” (p. 105). I see a similar sentiment in Tai Chi Chuan. The Tai Chi form, although rich with practical elements, is practised in such slow motion that all practicality—all semblance to real fighting—is lost. The Tai Chi Chuan form is not primarily meant to teach you how to fight. Yes, fighting skill can be extrapolated from the movements, but that is hardly it's chief purpose. Instead, the form is used to teach principles of movement and to quiet the mind in a type of meditation in motion. Neither would it be wrong to infer that the Tai Chi Chuan form also have an aesthetic aim; and an ascetic one as well. Similarly, the ITF patterns do have a practical function as a combative training tool, but that is only one of the factors, and arguably not the principle one. To read the ITF patterns in exactly the same way as the Karate kata would be to impose on them an erroneously narrowed function. It would, I believe, be somewhat better to interpret the ITF patterns similarly to the way one is to interpret the Tai Chi Chuan forms.

In sum, the ITF Taekwon-Do patterns are not to be understood from a Karatesque paradigm as merely “combatives manuals,” but are also vehicles for actively teaching Korean philosophy, history, and culture. They are furthermore driven by an aesthetic purpose. A point I did not address, but which is well worth considering, is that the patterns could possibly also be used as an ascetic tool, as platforms for meditation in motion, as is the case with the Tai Chi forms.

In a future post I will look at the more tangible value of the ITF patterns.


  • Choi, Hong-Hi. ITF Encyclopaedia. Volumes 1 & 8.
  • Clayton, Bruce D. 2010. Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origin. Expanded Edition. Black Belt Books. 
  • Donohue, John J. 1998. Herding the Ox: The Martial Arts as Moral Metaphor. Turtle Press.

06 April 2012

Techniques Can Kill

I've mentioned some safety precautions before when performing the rear naked choke. If precautions are taken, this could be a safe technique to practise, but let's not forget that it is also a lethal technique, as a recent tragic incident shows: A few days ago two cousins were playfully wrestling when the younger cousin got his older cousin in a rear naked choke hold and unwittingly strangled his cousin to death.

In the video below two BJJ instructors discuss the incident, including some of the surprising symptoms of unconsciousness. If you practise this technique, please watch this video.

It is always advisable that if any partner work is done, it is best to do so with a supervisor watching. Even then accidents could happen. Martial arts are, after all, occupied with the act of hurting and killing; of course as a pretence ritual -- that is what martial arts are. However, just because we are pretending, i.e. applying safety precautions, doesn't mean that these things are not lethal. Likewise, just because many of the things we are doing are in fact performed with layers of safety precautions in place--especially by the traditional martial artists, this doesn't mean that they are not dangerous. There are often important reasons for practising techniques, including traditional techniques, in certain "unrealistic" ways.

Train safe!

I saw the following from another blog and thought it well worth it to include here:

Chokes are no joke. Which makes you look more like a chump? Tapping out and patting your cousin on the back. “Wow that was awesome you really got me there I was starting to see stars”. Or being killed by a 14 year old? No one knows why Arcenaux didn’t tap, but if you find yourself in a simular situation just tap. Your not tapping doesn’t impress anyone. Nor does tapping ruin your status, even in competition. There is a reason the tap exists! Better to tap and learn from your experience than break an elbow and be out for 6 months learning nothing.
Law Enforcement:
Again, Chokes are no joke. A 110 lb 14 year old ended a guy twice his size with out trying in 30 seconds. A subject putting their hands around your neck is a lethal force situation. When lethal force is justified USE LETHAL FORCE, you can ease back if control can be gained, but you don’t have time to try less effective lower force options.

04 April 2012

Totally Tae Kwon Do

For the April 2012 issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do (Issue #38) I contributed an essay based on two posts from last year concerning the problem with using Korean terminology and the problem with using English terminology in Taekwon-Do. My essay starts on p. 95. This month's issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do is the biggest one yet, with over 100 pages, covering a vast range of topics. There are so many interesting articles it is difficult for my to highlight any specific ones and since it is such a lengthy volume I still haven't even read most of it.

The Sine Wave Motion Is Not Ever Present / The Patterns Are Not Fighting Templates

There is a mistaken notion that the sine wave motion (i.e. the iconic relax-up-down movement) is the only way of stepping in ITF Taekwon-Do and ever present; i.e. it is always applied. This idea is held especially by people that have not emerged themselves properly in ITF Taekwon-Do to know how this martial art is put together, but also by some ITF practitioners with a superficial understanding of the art. The iconic sine wave motion is most prominently seen in ITF Taekwon-Do’s fundamental movements as expressed in the patterns (“teul”). This may be one cause for this erroneous notion that the sine wave motion is a universal feature in ITF Taekwon-Do, based on the assumption that the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do function exactly the same way, and is practised for exactly the same purposes as in, for instance, kata in Karate.

The expression “Kata is Karate” is one, I’m sure, most Karateka have come across and probably a number of times during the Karate careers. “Teul is Taekwon-Do,” on the other hand, is not a common expression at all. The idea that one ought to fight in the same fashion as one performs a pattern is not a strongly held belief in Taekwon-Do (in WTF even less so than in ITF). ITF Taekwon-Do’s patterns are not shadow boxing, nor a fully developed mock case study for a fight. Karate on the other hand, sees Kata as exactly this—a model for fighting. (See Dr. Bruce Clayton's Shotokan's Secret: The Hidden Truth Behind Karate's Fighting Origins.)

While ITF Taekwon-Do does look at patterns for some fighting instruction, it is not the ultimate exercise in this regard. Our mock demonstration of a fight are to be found in other exercises such as one step sparring, model sparring, self-defence technique practise and self-defence demonstrations—not primarily in the patterns. The patterns have other purposes: “pattern practise 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).

The Encyclopaedia continues to say that “a pattern can be compared with a unit tactic or word” (Vol. 8, p. 13). That a pattern be compared to a single word is proof enough that the patterns are not a full expression of ITF Taekwon-Do, for that would mean that Taekwon-Do proposes only and exactly 24 (the number of patterns) “words”—scarcely the vocabulary of a two year old!

Yes, patterns have some value for “develop[ing] sparring techniques,” but this is not the only, and hardly the most important purpose of patterns.* (See what I consider the value and purpose of the patterns are here.) It is also obvious to anyone looking at the fundamental movements in the patterns that they are performed much too slow for real fight application. The preparatory motions for the movements have an almost slow-motion quality to them. As Mr. Manuel E. Adrogué, a 6th Dan Taekwon-Do practitioner, articulated on behalf of the non-ITF proponents: “Why would ITF proponents take so long to perform only one technique, bouncing around, while the ‘Korean traditionalists’ [and may I add, Japanese traditionalists] would swiftly link an efficient combination of several consecutive blocks or strikes taking the same time?” (Adrogué, p. 4). ITF has been dismissed as “simplified martial arts not including combinations in their patterns” and where combinations do exist “their slow rhythm deprives them from [being] ‘combinations’ from a fighting perspective” (Adrogué, p. 6).

Adrogué also provides the answer: “ITF stylists consider their basics simply as a training tool that is much adapted and toned down in actual application in violent scenarios—while in contrast Shotokan stylists aim to apply their motions exactly as practiced in their basics…” (p. 6). The approach to patterns/kata in ITF Taekwon-Do and Karate is obviously different. “Shotokan Karate-type sparring actually works within the same logic of its basics and forms,” while “Taekwon-Do sparring and patterns function as complementary opposites” (13), which function within a “composition cycle” that outlines ITF Taekwon-Do's pedagogy.

I don’t know if other martial artists, for whom their patterns (kata, forms, etc.) are indeed contextualised fights and a form of combat training realise, that this is not how patterns have been seen in ITF Taekwon-Do for over half if its existence. It would be more accurate (although not completely) to understand the ITF patterns from a Chinese martial arts perspective (think of a Tai Chi Chuan form), rather than from a Karate paradigm.** I feel it necessary to emphasize it here that although ITF Taekwon-Do has roots in Shotokan Karate, it has evolved from its ancestor and is now, at its core, quite different in application and practise; it is different pedagogically and philosophically.

Looking at the basic movements as manifested in ITF Taekwon-Do patterns and from this inferring a proper understanding of how the sine wave motion functions within ITF Taekwon-Do is a gross error.

The down-up-down motion is not universal in ITF Taekwon-Do application and practise—not even in the patterns themselves! There are numerous ways of stepping and moving in Taekwon-Do. The basic sine wave motion (i.e. relax-up-down) is indeed one way, and obviously a prominent way, but definitely not the only way. Even in patterns the sine wave motion itself is often altered into “connecting motion”, “continuous motion”, “slow motion” and “fast motion”. The latter is a form of motion with almost no discernible sine wave motion at all. Then there are the (foot-) shifting motions, which is a very important and highly valued type of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do, where no sine wave motion is present. There is also side-stepping and dodging motions that does not usually involve the sine wave motion either.

The sine wave motion, although a conspicuous part of fundamental movements as expressed in patterns, is not the only way of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do and is in fact not even the most often used way of moving in a combat scenario; i.e. in fighting and self-defence. The most common motions for these scenarios are “fast motion” and “foot-shifting,” not the sine wave motion. For actual fighting the sine wave motion is delegated only to those moments where body dropping or body raising will contribute substantially to the technique's force.

It is important to realise that the patterns are not the exclusive foundation for ITF Taekwon-Do or the only way we move in ITF Taekwon-Do. The patterns are one element in a “composition cycle” of elements that all teach different principles, different skills, different ways of moving. Likewise, the iconic sine wave motion is one of many ways of moving in ITF Taekwon-Do.

Although I believe that the sine wave motion may not be an ever present feature; I do, however, think that the principles (Wave Principle / Circle Principle / Taegeuk) are ever present to all authentic Taekwon-Do techniques.

* Note, that I'm not saying that we cannot and do not learn fighting skill or strategies from patterns. We can, and we do, as seen in, for example, in Stuart Anslow's Ch'ang Hon Taekwon-Do Hae Sul: Real Applications to the ITF Patterns: Volume 1. However, there are other emphases in the ITF approach to patterns.

** Admittedly, I make some broad statements about Chinese martial arts (Tai Chi Chuan in particular) and Karate, as if Tai Chi Chuan and Karate are respectively practised and understood the same. This is, of course, not the case. There are different Tai Chi Chuan lineages and training purposes for Tai Chi Chuan, and there are many different styles of Karate. 


  • Adrogué, M. E. "ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine Wave as 'Sequential motion': More Power Than What Meets the Eye." [PDF]
  • Choi, Hong-Hi. ITF Encyclopaedia. Volume 8.

01 April 2012

Random Seminar Photos

Just some random photos of the warm-up section of a seminar I presented in South Africa in February, showcasing various core-muscle and balance exercises, stretching exercises and other fundamentals.