11 November 2015

Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing away of our friend Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe last Friday, 6 November 2015.

Sabeomnim Chris has been a pivotal behind the scenes figure in the South Africa ITF community. Over his many years of service he held numerous important positions on the SA-ITF's executive board, such as Secretary General, Information Director, and Constitutional Director; he also functioned as National Team Manager during international championships, as NGB representative at important ITF meetings, as the first webmaster for the SA-ITF, and occasionally as the official SA-ITF photographer. It was particularly in his roles as Secretary General and Constitutional Director that he shaped the very core of the organization. Few members know how fiercly Sabeomnim Chris fought behind closed doors on their behalf; how he embodied being a “champion of freedom and justice” for the normal and sometimes disadvantaged Taekwon-Do students all over the country. Sabeomnim Chris also started the Acestes Taekwon-Do Clubs—one of the largest group of Taekwon-Do clubs in South Africa—and is a founding member of the Dan Gun Kwan with whom the Soo Shim Kwan has very close ties. Sabeomnim Chris' progeny students and co-federation heads Sabeomnim Karel Wethmar and Sabeomnim Annari Wethmar of the Dan Gun Kwan has produced more students to represent South Africa abroad than any other Kwan. Indeed, Sabeomnim Chris has left an enduring South African Taekwon-Do legacy.

Sbnim Chris van der Merwe and Sanko Lewis
On a personal note, I have lost a very dear friend. I met Sabeomnim Chris in 2001 at a Dan promotion test. I tested for my second degree black belt; he tested for his first degree black belt. Shortly afterwards I became the webmaster for the SA-ITF, working under Sabeomnim Chris' portfolio, and I took over from him in 2003 as the SA-ITF's Information Director. During this time we became very close friends. During those years I was going through very difficult times (the deaths of family members and loved ones). Sabeomnim Chris was always ready with a listening ear and sage advice. As a friend he also supported my intellectual pursuits and while he never went on to do a doctorate degree, he did much to encourage me to do so—which is something I'm currently busy with. As it was something we often talked about, it saddens me that he will not see me accomplish this goal early next year. Whenever I visited South Africa Sabeomnim Chris and I would make a decided effort to spend some quality time with each other—my visits to South Africa will now always have a gaping hole in them.

C. S. Lewis is known for saying: “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Sabeomnim Chris van der Merwe was an important friend to me that definitely imparted value to my life. And I know that he did the same for many, many other people. He is fiercely loved by hundreds of Taekwon-Do practitioners that were fortunate to be his students and his friends. He will be greatly missed.

On behalf of the Soo Shim Kwan I wish to share my condolences to the Dan Gun Kwan, the Acestes Taekwon-Do members, and Sabeomnim Chris' family and friends. We share in your grief.

Rest well my friend. Taekwon!

09 November 2015

Sine Wave Motion Contributes to Vertical Forces

I apologise for not writing more regular posts, but I am quite busy with work and studies. Once I graduate, which will hopefully be towards the end of February next year, I will probably write more frequently again. There have been many ideas running through my head that are aching to be expressed.

However, recently I've seen a number of people talking about “sine wave motion” again. One person, for instance, wrote on Facebook that one sees all these Taekwon-Do power breaking videos online, but they never use sine wave motion. Another thing I read recently was a small scientific experiment where people punched a bag that was equipped with measuring tools and the subjects punched the bag with sine wave motion and without sine wave motion. The results showed that “sine wave motion” added little to no force to the hits—that the punch without sine wave motion was actually better.

To me the statement about breaking and also this experiment is obviously flawed because the vector in these techniques travel horizontally, parallel with the ground. The “sine wave motion” is not intended to add force to techniques that move horizontally.

It is pretty simple and I don't know why people don't get it. I think it is because of the wrong appropriation of the term “sine wave.” It is not meant to be understood as an actual sine wave. What General Choi tried to explain was the displacement of the body's centre of mass along the vertical axis—up and / or down. If you also move forward and so displace the body's centre of gravity along the horizontal axis it mimics the motion of a wave, which he referred to as a “sine wave”. It was maybe not the best semantic choice, but don't get stuck on the term. See the principle.

What principle? Simply: accelerate as much of your body mass through your technique at the target. That's it.

Sometimes this means bending your knees and dropping your weight for a technique that includes a downward vector. Sometimes it means pushing with your legs up for a high technique. Sometimes it means not going up or down but keeping level, as with techniques that travel horizontally towards the target.

For me the “sine wave motion” (yes it is a bad term, but get over it) simply means I'm pushing my centre of mass upward or letting it drop downward, depending on the direction the technique is travelling towards the target.

Now some might say, that's not sine wave! Their reasoning is that ITF Taekwon-Do's “sine wave motion” always have three parts: down-up-down. Once you understand the principle of relaxation, activation, and execution that is taught through the “sine wave motion” one need not exaggerate them as is often done as a training mnemonic with the “sine wave motion.” The “sine wave motion” is a training tool used to teach principles of motion; it is not a cookie cutter that should be stamped onto every technique. Every sensible ITF practitioner knows this.

But enough about that—I've written about the phases of the sine wave motion enough elsewhere; let me quickly explain why I say the above experiment and breaking observations are based on wrong assumptions.

The “sine wave motion” contributes to vertical force—the rotation of the hip contributes to horizontal force. If the target is to be reached at a horizontal plane, adding vertical force (through dropping of the body weight) will not contribute to the force of the technique. However, if the target is at a downward angle so that the vector includes a vertical (i.e. downward angled) trajectory, then dropping the body weight will obviously contribute to the technique's power.

What people don't seem to get is that a large percentage of Taekwon-Do techniques reach their target not directly perpendicularly horizontal, but often at a slight downward angle. In other words, many Taekwon-Do techniques incorporate both horizontal (i.e. hip rotation) and vertical (i.e. body-dropping) forces.

Here are a few examples of techniques to which “sine wave motion” contributes.

Obviously, low techniques where the dropping of your body weight into the technique clearly contributes towards the force of the technique, for instance a low punch, low block, or low kick.

Most middle techniques too. For instance when doing a punch, the arm is not held up at the top level of the shoulders, but a little below the shoulders, so that the punching arm is not exactly parallel with the floor, but actually angled downwards a bit. Imagine standing in front of somebody your own height and punching them in the solar plexus, the fly ribs, or the kidneys. How should your arm be angled to achieve this?

The brachial nerve is reached at a
diagonal angle, not horizontally.
Many people think that the knife-hand side strike where the arm generally ends parallel with the floor reaches the target completely horizontally. This is just one application of the technique and not how I was taught to do it when I started with Taekwon-Do 20+ years ago, nor the main way I teach it. I was taught that it is a strike to the brachial nerve plexus on the nook of the neck just above the clavicle. It is reached with a diagonally angled strike. Examples of similar targets reached with knife-hand side strikes are the solar plexus, ribs and kidneys.

Many blocks in Taekwon-Do divert the attack not merely sideways, but rather sideways and downwards.

Also, when I started Taekwon-Do over two decades ago my instructor insisted that most kicks should reach the opponent at a downward angle. The sidekick was taught as a “stomp”, the front kick as a “trample”, the turning kick as a “clobber” like with a sledgehammer for which you use gravitation to aid you in the technique. High kicks were never prioritized and even when kicks were performed high, the admonition was that you should hit with gravity as the kick was on its way down.

Let me point out that all these examples of "Taekwon-Do work[ing] with gravity" (as my first instructor used to say) are from my basics. These are techniques I learned over twenty years ago in a Taekwon-Do gym where nobody every mentioned “sine wave motion.” I only learned of the term after I had my first black belt.

Setting up breaking boards (or measuring equipment) to be hit with fully horizontally moving techniques are flawed, I think. If you want to test if “sine wave motion” (i.e. the dropping of the body weight into a technique) adds to the force exerted by a technique, then you should set-up the experiment for techniques where this makes sense, where dropping the body weight into the technique is actually measured. That's why, when I teach breaking techniques to my students we hold the breaking boards at various different angles and heights.

05 November 2015

Some Thoughts on Martial Arts and Body Culture

An interest of mine is “Body Culture” (German: "Körperkultur"); basically, the study of cultural ways of moving. Here in Korea where I live, I can often very easily recognize a non-Korean from afar or from the back simply by the way they walk. I can also often accurately recognize Koreans that grew up abroad or lived abroad for a long time. Body movement is “regional” and can be acquired like an accent. Something I am slowly researching is how cultural ways of moving affect martial arts. I've already written a bit about it with regards to the “sine wave movement” on this blog and am currently working on a book about the topic (but it will still be a while before it's finished as I'm focusing on my PhD at present). For this short post, I want to show a small example of the relationship between a culture and their way of moving in the martial arts. The indigenous religion of Japan is Shinto.

Although Shinto does not have specific moral “doctrines,” it has a type of moral aesthetic. To quote Shinto priest Motohisa Yamakage: “Shinto conceives of good and evil in aesthetic terms, likening them to straight and curved lines. To the Japanese sensibility, a straight line is inherently beautiful. It need not be rigidly straight, but its emphasis should be forward and positive, signifying organic growth, clarity, and honesty” (The Essence of Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Heart, 2012:44, 45). There is an assumption people have about Karate—that Karate's linear movements developed for practical purposes based on the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What if Karate movements evolved to look the way they do not primarily because of their practicality, but because the cultural “sensibility” is that straight lines are “good,” while curved lines are “evil”? One can see something of this in the difference between Karate as it is practiced in mainland Japan where Shintoism is particularly emphasized, as opposed to on Okinawa.

I propose that while this might be a weird concept to accept for people unfamiliar with body culture, it becomes less strange once you start to look at the dances cultures. I have asserted before that there is a connection between Korean folk dance, Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do. They all share a particular Korean three-beat rhythm and a peculiar “bounciness”, or what is known in Korean folk dance as “verticality”. When one looks at Japanese performing arts and dances, one can also see similarities with Karate. Neither is it surprising that Chinese martial arts and Chinese performing arts (Chinese opera) greatly overlap.

The idea that in the traditional martial arts we move in certain ways, that kata or patterns are performed in particular ways, strictly based on efficiency or practicality of technique is an assumption. I'm not denying that practical considerations are indeed part of the way the martial arts move, but one cannot deny the influence of a cultural context of the martial arts—of body culture. There are reasons all the martial arts around the world do not look and move the exact same way. If it was all about the most “effective” technique, then there should have been much more uniformity. The cultural context has a big influence on the body culture, and in turn on the martial arts that developed in those cultures. Body culture may be influenced by such obscure things as an aesthetic appreciation of straight lines over curved lines, or the cultural folk rhythms, and many other variables.

What does this mean for martial artists? For one, there is a difference between a martial art which is embedded with a cultural heritage as opposed to a pure (if such a thing exists) combative system. The next time you practise Taekwon-Do, or Shotokan Karate, or Whin Chun, or Capoeira, or Savate, to name just these few martial arts as examples, know that you are not simply learning fighting techniques, you are also learning a particular cultural way of moving your body—you are in fact learning a body culture.