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


Dan Djurdjevic said...

I enjoyed your article Sanko - and was surprised to see the cross-references to my own articles! Thanks! Keep up the good work.

SooShimKwan said...

Thank you Dan! By referencing to your articles, I was able to get away with much less explanations on my own, as you did such a good job at explaining some very difficult concepts!

Stuart said...

Great stuff Sanko, I've been waiting for this for ages, but hadn't checked in for a while obviously.
Off to read the next part now...