25 February 2013

The Value of Patterns (Part 2): Kinaesthetics (Part 3: Rhythm & Breathing)

In my discussion on the kinaesthetic value of the patterns I discussed in Part 1 the heavy emphasis on relaxation and moving from a state of relaxation. I also focussed on the value of the patterns to acquire better body awareness with regards to static and dynamic balance, stances, personal space, and improving coordination. In Part 2 I focussed on the patterns providing an environment in which to drill the acceleration of body mass in techniques, while using sequential motion to create a whip-like effect, and using gravity's force as an aid where appropriate. In this (possibly) final instalment on what I consider to be the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns I will look at rhythm and tempo, timing, and breathing.

Rhythm & Tempo

“The pattern should be performed in a rhythmic motion and without stiffness,” states the ITF Encyclopaedia.

I have already noted how that tempo in the ITF patterns are relatively slow compared to, for instance, Karate kata. This had not always been the case. Originally, Taekwon-Do was strongly influenced by Karate and in fact many Karate kata were practised in the gyms in Korea in the 50's and 60's. Even when General Choi started the initiative of developing new forms (now known at the Chang Hon Patterns), rather than just using Karate's kata, it was not all wholly new. Many sequences and remnants from different Karate kata are recognizable in the Chang Hon pattern set. There is no need to throw out what works. But for a long time Taekwon-Do practitioners still performed the patterns in a Karatesque manner, while the rest of the system evolved to a more Korean Kinaesthetic that is more relaxed and light-footed.

However, with the introduction of the sine wave motion this changed. The sine wave motion resembles the three beat rhythm (one-two-THREE; one-two-THREE) that is common in traditional Korea music. Applying this rhythm the patterns become much more in-line with Korean kinaesthetics as we also see in Taekkyeon, Korea's folk martial art, and Korean traditional dance.

Understanding this rhythm, many martial art applications present themselves. The first two beats are usually in a state of relaxation, sometimes used for yielding or entering; while the last beat is the active hard moment, often used offensively. So the study of the rhythm becomes a study of the Taegeuk (Yin-Yang or “Eum-Yang” as it is known in Korean).

Although the rhythm is often interpreted as two phases of "soft" and "hard" or “relax” and “tense”, it can also be interpreted from a sam-taegeuk model of three phases to correspond with the phases of the sine wave motion. In the typical sine wave motion the three phases are usually, relax-rise-fall, but many other three-phase possibilities exist, for instance: yield-reposition-attack, enter-uproot-throw, defend-position-counterattack, unbalance-setup-control, guard—attack high—attack low, block-attack-attack, etc.

Typically from technique to technique the patterns require a specific relaxed, relatively slow tempo using one full sine wave motion for every technique, known as normal motion. This tempo is sporadically interrupted resulting in other types of tempo: slow motion, fast motion, connecting motion, and continuous motion. Each of these teaches different ways of employing the “wave”. Sometimes the wave is “ridden” so that some techniques are done while going up, immediately followed by a technique going down in the relax-rise-fall sequence, other times more than one technique may be done while “falling”, or the technique may be a flow of blocking directly into counter-attacking, and so on. The wave can also be inverted and need not always be done in all three parts.

There is a quotation from the book Advanced Aikido by Phong Thong Dang and Lynn Seiser that I really like: “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” (p. 55). This quote from an Aikido source would have fitted equally well in the ITF Encyclopaedia. (Read more about the shared principles between Aikido and ITF Taekwon-Do here.)


It is in the patterns where the practitioner is first introduced to such rhythms, and concepts of Taegeuk and Sam-Taegeuk, which will ultimately become the corner-stone of understanding how timing works.

Timing refers to the interaction with an opponent. Because one is only figuratively interacting with an opponent while practising the patterns, this is not the ideal exercise for learning timing. Real exercise in timing is done in partner drills, sparring and self-defence training. Nonetheless, timing is reliant on understanding rhythm, your own rhythm and your opponents rhythm, and in this sense the patterns becomes the foundation from where timing will later be build on.

Timing also refers to one's ability to coordinate different parts of the total movement of your technique for optimal effect; for instance, coordinating the different parts of your body during a technique in such a way that you maximize your momentum and then transfer that force into your opponent. This relates to sequential acceleration and controlled falling which I discussed in Part 2.

In particular, acquiring the ability to properly time your strike to occur at the moment your step lands, is a main focuses of practicing the patterns in ITF Taekwon-Do and is something that instructors pay special attention to. If the punch is delivered before the step is completed, then one's body structure is likely to be weak, which may result in poor delivery of force. Conversely, if your stepping foot lands first, then your forward momentum will disperse into the ground, and so the body's forward momentum is wasted. Instead, the technique must be so timed that the body's momentum is transferred into the target through the hand at the moment the foot lands, and in so doing capitalizing on the forward momentum, while ensuring proper body structure.


The importance of correct breathing cannot be stressed enough. In ITF Taekwon-Do Breath Control is one of our six main technical principles. Not only is it a part of the Theory of Power, it is also referred to in the Training Secrets. The interesting thing about proper breathing is that it doesn't necessarily come naturally. While babies and most animals naturally do abdominal breathing, adults have usually lost this correct habit, possibly because of years of working in jobs that are not ergonomically friendly (like sitting behind desks and slouching over keyboards), restrictive clothing, bad posture, unnecessary stress, non-active lifestyles, and so on.

I recently discussed ITF Taekwon-Do's breathing in another post. My summary of the post was that “ITF Taekwon-Do encourages abdominal breathing. For combat purposes the abdominal breathing is adjusted to a short sharp breath that helps to focus both body and mind, helps prevent premature fatigue, helps to tense the core muscles at the moment of impact, helps to relax the body during the rest of time, and possibly even help to stifle pain or to endure strikes to pressure points.”

The rhythmic quality of the patterns, which corresponds with the traditional Korean three beat rhythm with emphasis on the third beat, is possibly the most prominent way where the ITF's short sharp breath is most specifically exercised. The patterns are concerned with coordinated movement and the practitioner learns to coordinate the motion with the breath. Usually every technique corresponds with one breath; in the full sine wave motion (relax-rise-fall), the first two-thirds where the body is relaxing and rising is generally used for inhalation, while the short sharp exhalation is done during the last third of the motion while the body is “falling”.  It is proper breathing that helps to make the patterns “sharp” as the breath is used to tense the core muscles and solidifies the body at the moment of impact. Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha explains, “as we move we should feel light, relaxed and flowing like water. When we finish a movement the body should become strong and hard like iron. The breath is how we can achieve this . . .”


The ITF patterns is the primary place where Taekwon-Do's rhythm and tempo is drilled. The rhythm guides the practitioner in acquiring when to relax and when to tense when executing techniques. The rhythm and tempo also teach strategic principles based on the Taegeuk (opposite forces of hard and soft) as well the Korean Sam-Taegeuk (three-phase forces). The patterns also became the foundation for training in timing, which is more fully practised in other parts of the ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy. Finally, the patterns are a place that emphasises proper breathing, which is one of the most important principles in the ITF Taekwon-Do curriculum.

10 February 2013

The Value of Patterns (Part 2): Kinaesthetics (Part 2: Accelerated Body Mass—Not Speed)

In the first instalment on what I consider to be the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns I mentioned firstly it's heavy emphasis on relaxation and moving from a state of relaxation. Furthermore, I mentioned how the relatively slow tempo of the patterns helps with improving body awareness—understanding how one's balance changes both statically and dynamically, how your centre-of-gravity changes, how your centre of mass changes, how your weight shifts from one foot to another, and so on. Related to this is an acquaintance with Taekwon-Do's formal stances, Taekwon-Do's basic movements, and the added benefit of improved coordination.

In this second instalment on the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns, I will focus on the acceleration of body mass.

Quick Movements versus Forceful Movements

People are often surprised at how slow, unhurried the ITF patterns seem to be. This is true as far as the tempo of the patterns is concerned. With few exceptions there is no urgency to rush from one technique to another technique. The techniques are seldom bundled in clusters of frantic defences and attacks. The patterns are not the primary place for acquiring fighting skills; they are rather “drills” for teaching certain concepts of movement; i.e. kinaesthetics. One such a kinaesthetic concept that patterns are primarily concerned with is to differentiate between mere quick movements versus forceful movements. Therefore, the focus of the ITF patterns is not on moving the limbs very quickly, like for instance in American Kenpo or Whin Chun where the opponent is overwhelmed with a barrage of very rapid strikes.

The video below shows American Kenpo Grandmaster Ted Parker demonstrating their Short Form 3. Once the form gets going, notice the hurried urgency with which it is performed.

Such a urgency is most likely to reflect the hurriedness of a real combat situation. The purpose of the ITF patterns is not shadow-boxing, requiring a flurry of attacks and defences.

Instead, the purpose of the patterns is to teach the practitioner to “accelerate as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique, with emphasis on strong exhalation, and without compromising your balance and posture.” The Fundamental Movements, as practised in the patterns, are primarily concerned with Newton's Second Law of Motion; i.e. Force = Mass x Acceleration. For nearly every movement in the patterns there must be a lot of mass accelerated. Practising flailing the limbs quickly is not the purpose of the patterns. Rather, the whole body mass should be activated for each technique.

Sequential Acceleration 

In the patterns, the aim is not really to learn how to move quickly; instead, the aim is to learn how to truly accelerate as much of the body's mass behind the technique as possible, but also in a whip-like manner known as sequential motion or kinetic chaining. This entails that different parts of the body initiates the movement at different times.

In the video below Grandmaster Choi Jung-Hwa looks at an exampled of a 90° turn into a forearm block as found in the pattern Chon-Ji, and speaks about the importance of employing  the waist to activate more of the body's mass, rather than just the arm for blocking. If one turns the waist too early it doesn't contribute to the momentum of the block. Different parts of the body is activated at different times in order to create the most momentum.

To quote Bruce Lee¹ on the subject of sequential motion:

The timing is such that each segment adds its speed to that of the others. The shortened lever principle is used to accentuate many of the particular speeds of this uncoil or whip. The rotation of each segment around its particular joint-fulcrum is made at high speed for that particular part; but each segment rate is accelerated tremendously because it rotates around a fulcrum already highly accelerated.

In the ITF patterns the techniques are often started with deliberate relaxation—corresponding with the first part of the sine wave motion. From here, however, the technique is accelerated in such a way that as much of the body mass as possible is engaged, adding to the force of the technique. For instance, when punching it is not merely the weight of the arm that is accelerated for the punch, but the mass of the whole body is engaged behind the punch, while sequential motion is applied to accelerate the punch in a whip-like fashion.

Bruce Lee, again, explains how this would work with analogies from sport:

In throwing a ball, all the accumulated speeds of the body are present at the elbow when the forearm snaps over its fast-moving elbow-fulcrum. . . An important aspect of this multiple action of acceleration is the introduction of each segment movement as late as possible in order to take full advantage of the peak acceleration of its fulcrum. The arm is kept so far behind that the chest muscles pulling against it are tensed and stretched. The final wrist snap is postponed until the last instant before release or, in striking, before contact. In football, the punter puts the last snap into his knee and foot as, or a shade after, he makes contact with the ball. It is this last moment acceleration that is meant by ‘block through the man’ in football or ‘punch through the man’ in boxing. The principle is to preserve the maximum acceleration up to the last instant of contact. Regardless of distance, the final phase of a movement should be the fastest. Maintaining this increasing acceleration as long as there is contact is sound. . .

Controlled Falling

One of the simplest ways to get the whole body's mass accelerated is by employing the constant pull of gravity. Much of the patterns, therefore, is concerned with teaching the practitioner “controlled falling”. In many of the techniques, the practitioner is actually “falling” into them, dropping his or her body weight from a higher position to a lower position and thereby converting potential energy into kinetic energy. Also, when stepping or sliding the body momentum is in a manner of speaking thrown into the technique, so that one is falling towards the target. In ITF Taekwon-Do we use this “falling” as a way to activate our body's mass, and then further accelerate the technique, using the aforementioned sequential motion method, which usually piggybacks on the “fall”; or put differently, while “falling” one accelerates different parts of the body sequentially in a whip-like fashion, thereby adding gravity's force with your own force.

It is important here to understand why I'm referring to it as “controlled falling” and not merely “falling”. One of the cardinal concepts in ITF Taekwon-Do is “to bring the action of [ones hands and feet] into one singe coordinated action . . .” at the same focused moment. Many martial arts believe it proper to first root, then punch when stepping. For instance, one would find in most systems of Karate that they will step, first plant the foot, and then punch. This is to ensure good structure and stability before punching. While this is a valid strategy, it does lose out on some of the power that can be gained from the forward momentum of the step. The problem with first placing your foot and then punching, is that once your foot lands—roots—the momentum dissipates into the ground.

Therefore, ITF Taekwon-Do, and some other martial arts like Xingyi, coordinate their movement so that their stepping foot lands at the same moment as the striking hand. In this way, the technique properly employs the whole momentum of the moving body and transfers this force through the technique (hand) into the target. Of course this is a basic concept in ITF Taekwon-Do and is practised constantly as part of our fundamental movements, but it is particularly in the patterns where we are constantly confronted with this principle in various types of techniques and contexts.

Using Gravity for Initiating Motion

Something I particularly find interesting about this principle when combined with ITF's focus on relaxation is how one learns to initiate movement of the body by using gravity's force, rather than one's own muscular force.

Doing so allows you to stay in a state of relaxation much longer than if you were to initiate your movement through muscular force. (The emphasis on relaxation was addressed in the previous post.)

For instance, a typical forward stepping punch in Karate requires that the Karateka thrusts forward with his rear foot. On the other hand, in ITF Taekwon-Do the way to initiate motion in the patterns is not by immediately thrusting with the rear leg, but rather by first relaxing the forward leg which causes the body to “fall” forward, so that the body's mass is brought forward onto the front leg in a natural, literally effortless way. This “falling” momentum is then capitalised on by the sequential acceleration of the different parts of the body later in the step. It is true that from start to finish the Karateka's forward stepping punch would be faster; however, the ITF practitioner's emphasis on accelerating more body mass is greater. Of course, it is important to remember that the aim of the patterns is not to teach fast, hurried defending and attacking, as might be the case in Karate. For more realistic defending and counter-attacking training other parts of the ITF pedagogy is used. The ITF patterns is building kinaesthetic awareness, and in this instance the goal is to acquire the ability to accelerate body mass sequentially and use gravity where appropriate to help with this, while emphasising relaxation.

Unhurried Tempo, but Hurried Acceleration 

It would be wrong to think, however, that the practitioner is not learning to move quickly. Actually, because there is a focus on acceleration, not merely on hurriedness, the practitioner learns how to accelerate quite dramatically.

Take a look at this video that shows a pattern in slow motion—the slow motion starts at 3:22. Notice, although each movement starts very slow, how fast they accelerate towards the end of each movement.

Even in a video that is artificially slowed down, one can see that the techniques are not slow throughout—in fact, at the moments just before impact, the techniques are extremely fast (even while shown in slow motion!).

So what is it that encourages this sudden acceleration? There is a principle in ITF Taekwon-Do that states that movements of the hands, feet and breath should finish at the same time—“To bring the action of [everything] into one singe coordinated action . . .”

In other words, for example in the case of a stepping back-fist strike, by the time the stepping foot is planted, the attack (the back-fist strike) should have landed also. In ITF Taekwon-Do one would generally not first step, root your foot, and then strike, as the moment your stepping food lands (and roots your body weight) the body's momentum is dispersed into the ground. So the back-fist strike should occur at the moment or slightly just before the stepping foot roots, causing the accelerated mass of your whole body to “fall” into the strike.

However, in the whole sequence of body parts being accelerated sequentially the striking arm actually starts quite late in moving towards it's target. The motion starts in the legs, then the hips, then the shoulders, then the elbow and lastly the forearm and wrist is flicked. This means that the arm should move very quickly to catch up with the motion of the rest of the body. While the patterns have no urgency in tempo, they definitely have an urgency in finishing the technique before the stepping foot has rooted (or before the “controlled fall” is finished). The focus is therefore not merely on moving quickly from technique to technique; rather, the focus is on accelerating every individual technique sequentially and as quickly as possible so that “the final phase of [the] movement [is] the fastest,” with a significant amount of body mass engaged behind it.


In conclusion, a primary value of the patterns is to supply an environment in which to drill the acceleration of body mass in techniques, while using sequential motion to create a whip-like effect, and using gravity's force as an aid where appropriate. Moving with a sense of relaxation is a key ingredient in this regard. Although there is generally no sense of urgency in between techniques (with some exceptions), there is a definite sense of urgency in accelerating each individual technique quite rapidly.

In the next instalment(s) on what I consider the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns I will look at rhythm and timing, and breathing.

1. Bruce Lee, “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”

Happy Lunar New Year

Today is Lunar New Year, celebrated by most of the Orient. The Lunar New Year falls on a different date every year depending on the lunar cycle, on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar.

In Korea Seolnal (Lunar New Year's Day) is one of the two big holidays of the year with both the day before and after also being public holidays because of the travelling involved. Families go to the home of the oldest male member of the family. Traditionally all the male members of the family will pay homage to their ancestors. Respect is also shown to the eldest members of the family starting with the grandparents, with deep bows. During these formalities it is customary for Koreans to dress formally in traditional clothes known as Hanbok.

The traditional meal for Seolnal is ddeokkuk, rice-dumpling soup, although Korean holidays are known for lots of eating of different types of traditional food. Families often also play games together. Traditionally kite-flying was a particular seolnal activity and some Koreans still do so.

One can give Korean New Year's greetings by saying: "새해 복 많이 받으세요!", pronounced as: seh-heh bock mahn-hee bah-duh-se-yoh. It means: "May you have many blessings in the New Year!"

09 February 2013

The Value of Patterns (Part 2): Kinaesthetics (Part 1: Relaxation, Body Awareness, and Spacial Awareness)

Me practicing Fundamental Movements
In previous posts I shared my opinion about the value of the ITF patterns. First I said that the patterns are not foremost fighting templates, nor are they primarily dallyeon (i.e. strength & fitness training). Then what is the primary reason for training in the patterns?

The main purpose, I believe, is Kinaesthetics. The patterns teach us a way of moving and understanding movement that is difficult to isolate and acquire through other drills.

The following comment by Master Manuel Adrogué's provides a good abstract to much of what this discussion will be about: “In ITF patterns there are no physical conditioning exercises, no applicable combat strategies, there is no hurry to conform to fast combat rhythm, just perfectly balanced, powerful techniques using all [the] time they may need.  Additionally, the emphasis on relaxation in ITF Taekwon-Do, to the point of completely shunning muscular force, educates students in correct habits of motion.”¹

I will discuss what I consider the kinaesthetic values of the ITF patterns over three posts. In this one I will look at conditioning relaxation; creating an awareness of one's equilibrium and body movement; including ingraining balanced and appropriate stances and basics; as well as creating spacial awareness. In the second post I will look at the value of learning how to accelerate one's body mass sequentially. In the final post post I will discuss training rhythm and breathing.


First, the ITF patterns, with their relatively slow tempo and emphasis on the sine wave motion, teaches the practitioner to relax. The full sine wave motion starts with deliberate relaxation. To perform a pattern correctly you must move from a state of relaxation, or as Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha puts it: "relaxed, light, and fluid"². Any unnecessary tension, except at the moment of impact, makes the movement lose its "relaxed, light, and fluid" quality. Unlike some Karate kata where muscular tension is encouraged for the purpose of strength conditioning, in the ITF patterns muscular friction is particularly avoided. The only time muscles are tensed are at the final moment of the technique just before impact with it's target.

A primary function, then, of the ITF patterns is to condition one to move in a "relaxed, light, and fluid" manner. Using the pre-arranged sparring drills, the practitioner is guided to transfer such relaxation into combative activities. In the basic pre-arranged sparring exercises, such as three step-sparring, the practitioner will apply the same relaxed tempo to this drill. The practitioner therefore learns to stay relaxed even when facing an opponent (training partner).

As the practitioner progresses in level and skill, the complexity, difficulty and tempo of the drills are increased, moving along a continuum of very predictable drills with a low amount of variables, towards much less predictable (chaotic) drills with an increased amounts of variables that more closely reflect a real combat situation. (Read more on how this is supposed to work in my post on The Value and Purpose of Prearranged Sparring.)

If properly practised, the sense of relaxed movement that are continuously instilled through pattern practise is transferred into the other aspect of the system. This means that skilled practitioners are able to move with a similar relaxedness, lightness and fluidity that were instilled from the patterns, but at much quicker tempos as are required in more realistic combative training.

To me, this point—moving from a state or relaxation—is probably the most important reason the ITF patterns are performed the way they are.

Equilibrium and Body Awareness

The second kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns is that their relatively slow tempo allows the ITF practitioner to become aware of both their static and dynamic balance. Because the ITF patterns are not considered combat-ready templates that mimic actual real combat, there is no need to rush them as if one were actually fighting. In fact, the tempo of the patterns are deliberately slowed down to allow the practitioner to become aware of the body mechanics and physics of each technique individually.

In other words, by doing the patterns so slowly, compared with the urgency with which the forms are performed in some other martial arts, the ITF practitioner has the time to really "feel" how their centre-of-gravity changes, how their weight shifts from one foot to another, how their mass moves through space, how the different parts of the body is sequentially activated to create a whip-like motion.

A Tai Chi Chuan practitioners usually perform their forms
in a consciously slow fashion.
Image Source
Both the previous point of conscious relaxation, and this point regarding a deliberate awareness of one's equilibrium and weight-shifting are goals the ITF patterns share with the Tai Chi Chuan forms. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a Tai Chi practitioner would engage in a fight applying the same slow motion tempo one sees them doing while performing a Tai Chi Chuan form. Obviously the Tai Chi practitioner would have to adapt his or her form to make it “combat applicable”—for one, the practitioner would definitely have to speed-up his or her movements. Why then does Tai Chi Chuan spend so much time practising their forms in slow-motion? The reason, I believe, is in part that the slow motions forces one to relax more, but also it really increases one's awareness of how your body moves through space, how your centre of gravity changes, how your weight shifts from one foot to the other. The moment you start rushing your movements it becomes exceptionally difficult to really become aware of the dynamics of such changes in one's balance and body structure. Rushed movements shift the focus from the “journey” to the “destination”. While there is much value in speed training (i.e. getting to the destination as quickly as possible), there is just as much value in understanding the variables along the path, and the latter is only truly achievable at a slower, contemplative tempo.

Ingrained Stances, Basics & Coordination 

Not only is the practitioner learning about balance and weight-shifting, but very importantly, the practitioner learns how different stances provide different types of structure and balance for different types of attacks and defences. The walking stance is strong from the front and back, but weak from the side; the sitting stance is strong from the side or when posting ("falling") against something but one can easily be pushed off balance from the front or back; the rear-foot stance (aka “cat-stance”) is good for withdrawing from an attack and counter-attacking with the leading foot, but it is not very stable as your balance is centred mostly over one foot only; and so on.

When moving through patterns, one shifts from one stance to the next stance, doing different steps and pivots; in so doing, the practitioner starts to acquaint him- or herself at a subconscious level with these stances within a dynamic context. Over time the practitioner finds that he or she almost automatically chooses the most appropriate stances for different tasks and situations. Such "automatic" responses are not accidental, but have been ingrained during years of pattern training.

(Read more about this in Dan Djurdjevic's post on “Kata, kinaesthesia, proprioception and motor learning”.)

Furthermore, certain types of movements which often uses gross motor skills become ingrained to form “basics”, which can be adjusted depending on what a situation calls for. Basics are different from Fundamental Techniques. It is rumoured that ITF Taekwon-Do has about 3200 Fundamental Techniques. Each one of these Fundamental Techniques is a specific identifiable technique using a specific stance and specific tool (e.g. attacking or blocking tool) aimed at a specific target on the opponent and which can usually be found described or is alluded to in the ITF Encyclopaedia.

A snap shot of an Intermediate Position
There are much fewer basics and one is exposed to all the important basics very early on, probably within the first few colour belt patterns. Basics are often embedded in the Fundamental Techniques and function as building blocks from which different Fundamental Techniques are constructed. An example of such basics is learning to move through the Intermediate Positions. Acquiring a sense of the intermediate positions is probably one of the most important kinaesthetic values of pattern practise. The problem with the intermediate positions is that they are dynamic, rather than static positions. In other words, unlike Fundamental Techniques that have an “end-position” in which we can pose statically, the intermediate positions are moments inside of movements and attempting to pose in them detract from their value. The only way to really get a sense for them is by practising them dynamically; i.e. while moving from one Fundamental Technique to another, and for this pattern practise is ideal.

Dan Djurdjevic compares what I call the basics, i.e. these “building blocks”, with stem cells that can change into whichever “cells” are required. Since he already explained this concept in detail, I will not repeat it here. Please read his post on “Kata Techniques as Stem Cell Movements”.

I need to also momentarily comment on coordination, which might be taken for granted, yet this is a point which is close to my heart. As a kid I had terrible coordination. Taekwon-Do, which I started as a teenager, has done much to improve my hand-eye (and foot-eye) coordination. Obviously all physical activity contributed to my improved coordination, but I believe that the patterns have a special value in this regard because of their systematic nature. I still vividly remember how difficult it was for me to master those very first forms, Saju-Jjireukgi and Saju-Makgi. It is surprising how many things occur during just one Fundamental Movement and for a beginner even something as elementary as the Saju-forms, that each consist of only two movements combined in a sequence, can prove to be quite daunting. The brain is wonderfully challenged and improved coordination is a great benefit. As a child I often missed catching something thrown at me; now, I sometimes catch things even without thinking. For instance, I'm often surprised how I would catch something that might fall from a table, without me even consciously trying to—it just happens reflexively. Whenever that happens I cannot help smiling, thinking of how far that clumsy teenager has come, and I'm certain the patterns played a part in that. The patterns are arranged according to certain levels of complexity and physical difficulty, causing a systematic development of ones coordination and other related skills.

Spacial Awareness

Another kinaesthetic value of the patterns is that it enhances one's spacial awareness.

Generally Asian cultures and cultures of the Far East in particular are group-orientated. An interesting feature of group-oriented cultures is that the personal space between people are often much smaller than is the case in individual-oriented cultures. This has some serious self-defence implications.

Let me make a quick detour through Thailand and then turn back to Korea again. A friend of mine, the actor and stuntman Damian Mavis who is also an ITF Taekwon-Do practitioner, resides in Thailand. On one visit with him we got to talk about personal space in Asia. He told me how easy he found it to sneak up on his Thai friends even from the side because of their sense of personal space which is so small. Similarly in Korea, standing or sitting on the subway with people's shoulders literally pressed against one another is not perceived as uncomfortable by Koreans. Likewise, when standing in a line, people often stand very close to each other. Personal space in the Far East is quite small and personal space to the rear and side is exceptionally small from Western standards. Furthermore, large, sudden movements are considered rude and improper in the conservative, group-oriented cultures of the Far East, influenced by Confucian standards of conduct.

I find it not surprising that the patterns which are based on the Japanese kata make such large movements, uses exaggerated long steps, and focus on turning at right angles and 180° pivots, forcing the practitioner to become aware of his or her sides and back just as much as his or her frontal space.

I hypothesize that the kata was, at least in part, developed to help the practitioner to break through his or her culturally induced small personal space, and actually to enlarge it. Obviously a larger and wider personal space will increase ones spacial awareness, which is a valuable skill for self-defence. If your personal space is larger, you become aware of people entering your personal space much earlier, which is very important for detecting threats earlier.

People are often narrowly focussed on what is in front of them; however, many attacks on one's person are surprise attacks launched from the side or behind. Widening one's spacial awareness to things on your sides and rear is a crucial skill for self-defence, and even more so for people from the Far East whose personal space is culturally smaller and narrower.

Although I have emphasised how the ITF patterns are used as a vehicle for bestowing Korean traditional culture, paradoxically, in this way the patterns (including the Japanese kata) seem to break with common Oriental culture by actually enlarging and widening their personal space.


The kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns is concerned with teaching the practitioner to move from a state of relaxation. Furthermore, the patterns focus on body awareness (getting acquainted with one's static and dynamic balance), and spacial awareness, while also ingraining certain stances, basics, and increasing coordination.

1.  Manuel Adrogué , “ITF Taekwon-Do and Sine-Wave as 'Sequential Motion'”
2. Rhee Ki Ha, “This is Taekwon-Do

06 February 2013

ITF Breathing

I had the time recently to write my promised post on the kinaesthetic value of pattern training (the ITF way), but I decided to postpone this in order to first talk a little about ITF Taekwon-Do's way of breathing, which is one of the important things we practise in the patterns.

Any professional athlete will tell you, breathing will make or break your performance. I am always surprised by beginners (in martial arts or other activities) who actually forget to breath—or rather, who hold their breaths while concentrating on the activity at hand. One's endurance is severely affected by inconsistent breathing, not to mention ones mental focus.

Taekwon-Do, like most Oriental martial arts, make use of abdominal breathing. Abdominal breathing, emphasises deep inhalations during which the abdomen is expanded in order to fill the lungs fully; then tensing the abdomen to help push out the breath better during exhalation. This type of abdominal breathing is the preferred “natural” way of breathing encouraged for normal activities. It is often practised during meditation.

The Chinese character for Ki (i.e. life force)
also translates as "breath"
In Oriental Medicine and those martial arts concerned with Ki (기) development, abdominal breathing, known as “danjeon hoheub” (단전 호흡) in Korean, aims to increase and store Ki at the danjeon—Ki being the “life force”, often also translated as “breath”, “energy” or “spirit”, and the “danjeon” being the body's center, a point below the navel and a few inches inwards where one can supposedly store Ki.

But Breath Control, “hoheub jojeol” (호흡 조절), in ITF Taekwon-Do also involves another type of breathing, usually described as a “short sharp breath”. The ITF Encyclopaedia (Volume 2, p. 31) describes it as follows: “A sharp exhaling of breath at the moment of impact and stopping the breathing during the execution of a movement tense the abdomen to concentrate maximum effort on the delivery of the motion, while a slow inhaling helps the preparation of the next movement.”

The short sharp breath in Taekwon-Do functions in the same way as the kihap or “spirit shout”. Kihap (기합)  directly translated from the Hanja (氣合) means “energy-unite”, but generally, or rather literally, it is understood as a “shout of concentration” (of both mind and body); more esoterically it is understood as a shout during which you project your Ki through your breath. Many martial arts make use of the kihap, particularly as a form of intimidation. According to martial art legends some great masters have such great Ki-skill (기합술), that they could make people faint or turn and flee with only their kihap. Kihap is also sometimes translated from Korean as “a shout of rage” or even “punishment”. Whether one believe in Ki or not, the psychologically disturbing effect of such a “shout of rage” can very well be of value during a fight.

In ITF Taekwon-Do, however, the psychological effect on the opponent is regarded less than the personal physiological effect, and therefore instead of focussing on kihaps we rather emphasise the value of the short sharp breath. General Choi felt that when students do the kihap for certain movements in the patterns they neglected those movements that did not have a kihap. He felt that all movements are equally important and should receive the same amount of focus and determination, so rather than have a kihap on particular techniques, a short sharp breath on every technique (with some exceptions) is better.

The short sharp breath acts somewhat like a sneeze where the whole body is tensed and focussed in that moment, i.e. the moment of impact. Another analogy may be the natural grunt we make when we pick up something heavy. The exhalation or grunt helps to tense and concentrate the core muscles, which stabilises the body's structure and help to ensure a better, stronger technique.

The breathing rhythm of the short sharp breath is similar to that in boxing. As the person in the boxing tutorial below explains “If you want sharp explosive punches, you need sharp explosive breathing.”

An interesting thing about the short sharp breath is that when done properly, one hardly need any conscious in-breath. Because of the tensed abdomen an artificial vacuum is created in the lungs, so that the moment you relax air is automatically drawn into the lungs. The result is that you can have numerous consecutive short sharp exhalations, without once feeling a need to consciously breathe in, as long as you properly relax in between your techniques. This is very valuable for consecutive and fast motion techniques.

Just as in boxing, every punch (or in the case of ITF Taekwon-Do every technique; i.e. punch, kick, block, etc.) is accompanied with one strong, sharp exhalation. One instructor from Northern Korea advised that the exhale should be about two-thirds of the lungs' air, and that at the moment of impact the lips should be closed to help with tensing the muscles. This is the way breathing works for normal motion techniques. Other motions like slow-motion, fast motion, connecting motion and continuous motion work similarly, but with slight adjustments. In the full sine wave motion (relax-rise-fall) the first two-thirds while the body is relaxing and rising may be used for relaxed inhalation, while on the last third of the motion, while the body is "falling", the short sharp exhalation is used. (Notice the similarities with breathing in Tai Chi Chuan.)

The short sharp breath, therefore, not only teaches one to properly tense the body at the moment of impact, it also teaches one to stay relaxed in between such moments. People tend to unnecessary tense their bodies when it is not beneficial to do so. Correct breathing is therefore not only about knowing how and when to be tense, but also how to stay relaxed in between. Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha explains it in his book This is Taekwon-Do as follows: “as we move we should feel light, relaxed and flowing like water. When we finish a movement [i.e. at the moment of impact] the body should become strong and hard like iron. The breath is how we can achieve this . . .”

Breathing is not only used to help with tensing the core muscles for added power with techniques, the ITF Encyclopaedia also claims that “Through practice, breath stopped in the state of exhaling at the critical moment when a blow is landed against a pressure point on the body can prevent a loss of consciousness and stifle pain.” The idea of controlling pain through breathing is something espoused by some other martial arts as well, for instance Systema. It is well known that proper breathing has a calming effect and can be used to help to endure stress, anxiety, shock, and even helps while giving birth.

In summary, ITF Taekwon-Do encourages abdominal breathing. For combat purposes the abdominal breathing is adjusted to a short sharp breath that helps to focus both body and mind, helps prevent premature fatigue, helps to tense the core muscles at the moment of impact, helps to relax the body during the rest of time, and possibly even help to stifle pain or to endure strikes to pressure points.