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.

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