18 December 2017

Hapkido Master's Certification

This afternoon I made a quick pre-Christmas visit to the Korea Hapkido Federation headquarters 대한합기도 협회 in Seoul to meet with my Hapkido mentor Director Bae 배성북. He presented me with my Hapkido instructor's certification ("Certificate of Master" 사범자격증). I had complied with the requirements already in May, but I hadn't had an opportunity to visit the headquarters to pick up the certificate until today.

In Hapkido, after promotion to a 4th degree black belt and upon completion of a master's seminar (usually stretching over a few days), the English title "master" may be used. The Korean title sabeom 사범 applies. In ITF Taekwon-Do this is equivalent to an international instructor certification. (Read more about these titles here.)

My Hapkido journey started in 2006, when I came to Korea the first time. I feel very blessed to have grown in Hapkido under the positive influences of some great instructors: Master Jo at whose school in Gunja I started my Hapkido training, my friend Dr John Johnson who was instrumental in teaching me the foundational principles of Hapkido and guided me as I started out on this journey, Master Duke Kim (Kyongho) who prepared me for my first black belt, Master Kim Hoon who supported me for my 2nd and 3rd Dan and showed me a more practical version of the style, Master Bae Sungbook from whom I've learned tremendously and who I consider an important mentor in Hapkido, and my friend Dr Leo Chung with whom I co-hosted several martial arts workshops and regularly train with and learn from. I'm very appreciative of them all.

01 September 2017

Some thoughts on McGregor beating up Jesus

So, last week there was the big Mayweather-McGregor fight. McGregor made some comments back in 2015, which were dug-up possibly by Mayweather fans that wanted to paint McGregor in a bad light and get good intending Christians on board because the comments may be considered blasphemous. McGregor claimed in an interview, that if he faced Jesus as an opponent in the ring, he’d be able to beat him up. There are three thoughts that crossed my mind when I saw people sharing the meme of McGregor claiming that he’d beat up any man alive, including Jesus.

First, why the fuss with McGregor? Here we have Mayweather, convicted for assaulting several women he had been in relationships with, as well as other people.

See: "Floyd Mayweather has a disturbing history of domestic violence"

Let’s compare that for a moment with McGregor, who although he has a foul mouth, seems to adore his wife and treats her with great respect, and does not have a criminal record.

Why the need for the McGregor memes about his impossible, fictitious encounter with Jesus in a fight. Why didn’t I see any memes denouncing Mayweather for the misogynistic, violent thug and convicted criminal that he is? (There probably were a few such memes circulating the Internet, but I just didn't happen to see them shared within my SNS circles.) I’m just saying, what is more probable, that McGregor will beat up Jesus, or that Mayweather will beat up another woman? What is an actual concern here in our day and age? People beating up deities or men abusing women and children? Let’s rather talk about the issue of violence in general against women, children, and the marginalized, minorities, and gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transsexual people, and also animals. Let’s call out McGregor on his luxurious fur coats or on the implied acceptable bully behaviour that’s embedded in his statement of beating up the pacifist Jesus.

Second, from McGregor’s statement, his Biblical knowledge is rather lacking, stating: “Me versus Jesus in the Octagon? I tell you what, there's not a man alive that can beat me... But Jesus ain't alive... maybe he can come back from the dead, I don't know. I'd still whoop his ass.” Why do Christians get upset at someone who clearly don’t know the Biblical account of Jesus dying on the cross, then being resurrected on the third day, and finally ascending alive into heaven. If McGregor believes that “Jesus ain’t alive,” there is hardly a reason to take his comment seriously.

My last point is actually the very first thought I had when I saw these memes, and maybe it is the most controversial, but it is this: Jesus being beat up, tortured, and finally executed—without once putting up a fight to defend himself—is at the core of the Christian faith. One need not be a UFC champion to beat up Jesus. Jesus was in both his message and his actions a pacifist. It would hardly be a moment of pride for McGregor to beat up someone that never raises his fists, even in defence, but actually turns the other cheek. In fact, Jesus as the innocent victim, as the scapegoat killed by a community, is central to the messianic mission—this was the very revelation of his mission: that we humans resort to violence and that power-over-others is what we idealize, hence our adoration of fighters like Mayweather and McGregor. However, Jesus came to reveal the antithetical nature of God as non-violence, all-loving, as servant-to-all, who would rather be killed himself, than to retaliate in violence. Rather than finding McGregor’s statement offensive, I find it revealing—a revelation of the truth of the human condition, as was exposed at the execution of Jesus on the cross. If you are interested in these ideas, I strongly recommend the French philosopher René Girard’s works about mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, and the scapegoat mechanism.

23 August 2017

Lessons to be learned from an unfortunate death

There is much that can be learned from this incident in which an MMA fighter killed a body builder.
1. They have now both lost their lives. The MMA guy is sure to go to jail for manslaughter. And for what? An insult? This seemed to have been just an ego fight between two "tough guys". At any point, one of them could have swallowed their pride and walked away. He (the MMA dude or the body builder) may have been taunted as a coward for walking away, but that is nothing compared to the eventual consequences. Now we have a dead tough guy and a jailed tough guy that will probably be incarcerated for most of his life, and the end of both of their athletic careers.
2. The kick -- what we in Taekwon-Do call a reverse turning kick -- is one of our strongest kicks because of the spinning momentum. My instructor has often called it a deadly kick, and it was clearly not hyperbole.
3. The myth that high kicks are not effective in a 'street' fight is simply that; a myth.
4. Size does (not) matter. There is no question that size matters. But a trained fighter (in this case the MMA guy) can still do serious and even lethal harm to an untrained big guy (the bodybuilder).
5. Just because it is a combat sport, doesn't mean it is not effective "on the street". MMA, like other combat sports, can be used effectively against untrained people.
6. But combat sport, and also other forms of combat training, doesn't necessarily make for good, civilian appropriate self-defence. A civilian defense system can sometimes provides alternative and more civil responses than simply breaking someone's skull.
7. Sadly, I suspect with the increased popularity of MMA and UFC, we are likely to see more and more of these "accidents". As more people start to train in fighting techniques with the main goal of gaining a knock out (or "tap out"), and without a moral emphasis and an encouragement of "control", we are likely to see more young, ego-driven, testosterone hyped thugs (a title they probably embrace as part of their tough guy image), beating up (and sometimes killing) other people, for no sensible reason apart from their pride. Even Rickson Gracie, one of the pioneer MMA athletes who retired undefeated from the sport suggested that MMA gives a bad example, an "extreme sport without a code", often lacking humility and respect. Of course, there are exceptions, but as a combat sport, it is ultimately only about winning using violence.
8. The MMA guy's follow up to go beat up his opponent on the floor was clearly inappropriate; however, it was also simply part of his sports training. That is what one does in MMA. If someone falls you follow them to the ground and you continue to beat them up until the referee stops the fight. The lesson here is that one tends to perform how you train. A valuable lesson, albeit a sinister way to for us to see it.
9. One difference between how traditional martial arts (focussing on civilian self-defence) and a combat sport is practiced: in the traditional martial art the practitioner is usually taught to defend and then retreat. Once the assailant has fallen, the "defender" would retreat, away from harm, rather than follow them to the floor to break their skull. This was not an "assailant-defender" situation, but because we usually perform how we train, I hypothesize that a traditional martial artist would have reacted differently once his opponent had fallen. I'm not saying that in traditional martial arts we do not teach to follow up, but there is usually a different emphasis -- one of offensive-defence, rather than only offense.
10. Finally, in traditional martial arts, practitioners are required to practise a level of "control" which puts the moral responsibility on them -- but in full contact combat sport the onus is on the referee so that the practitioner does not have to think about the hassle of "control" and "ethics" and such bothersome moral considerations. There are many ways to differentiate between a traditional martial art and a combat sport or general combat system. One definite difference is that traditional martial arts contemplate ethical considerations beyond simply sports rules and fair play. Good traditional martial arts usually actively teach some form of ethical code based on a particular philosophical worldview. And this incident between professional MMA fighter Anar Ziranovshows and the now deceased power lifter Andrey Drachev shows us why.

09 July 2017

Taekkyun: An Essay

I was recently asked to write a 700 word essay for a magazine about my experience in Taekkyeon. Below is the first draft of that essay. 

Taekkyeon: Korea’s Folk Martial Art
By Dr. Sanko Lewis

Although I couldn’t understand the words, I could easily hum along to the soulful pentatonic melodies. The grannies happily sang the songs of their youth, while rhythmically stepping in a triangular pattern, bending their knees in a rhythmic bounce with each step, and swinging their arms this way and that way, as if wading through barley fields. The uninitiated seeing these elderly women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties—one even aged ninety-three—singing and moving to the rhythm of their ancestral songs would easily mistake the activity for a folk dance, rather than a martial art.

My first encounter with Taekkyeon, Korea’s most authentic martial art, was quite providential. I’ve already been practicing Korean martial arts since I was a teenager. I had a fourth degree black belt in Taekwondo and also a black belt in Hapkido, but I was eager to experience the lessor known Taekkyeon. Both Taekwondo and Hapkido are strongly influenced by Japanese martial arts—a legacy of the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Taekwondo evolved from Shotokan Karate, and Hapkido evolved from Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu. Taekkyeon, however, was a folk martial art practiced before the annexation of Korea, and suppressed nearly into extinction during the occupation. I knew that if I truly wanted to understand Korean martial arts, that I had to learn Taekkyeon. I was thrilled when I discovered that there is a respected Taekkyeon instructor at the very university where I just started working.

He was an oriental medicine doctor by profession and taught acupuncture and Taekkyeon at the university’s “Life Long Education Center.” The center offers different classes to retirees, hence the reason this class was filled with Korean grannies who came for acupuncture lessons on Wednesday and Friday mornings. I only attended the Wednesday morning class because on Fridays it clashed with one of the literature classes I teach in the English Department. When the grannies finish their acupuncture lesson, an hour of Taekkyeon followed. Halfway through the Taekkyeon class, someone would sneak out to switch on the rice cooker, for afterwards it was time for lunch. The grannies brought fourth numerous containers of homemade Korean side dishes—pickled chilies, beans glazed in honey, fern-shoots brined in soy sauce, stir-fried mushrooms, sweet lotus root, spicy kimchi—everyone shared in the merry potluck. I became very fond of these ladies who treated me like a long-lost son who they had to reintroduce into their culture. They not only fed me (and made sure I ate more than enough), they also taught me their beloved folk songs, and even showed me how to put on the white hanbok—a traditional Korean outfit—worn during Taekkyeon training. I found the unusual knot used to tie the jacket in the front and the pant legs tight against the ankles particularly challenging, and when my knots were jumbled one of the grannies would re-knot them properly. I loved training with the grannies and enjoyed being part of that unique community, but after a few months I realized that I wasn’t learning much anymore. The grannies went through all the fighting motions, but they never actually sparred, and even if they did, I would have felt much too uncomfortable sparring against them. It was then that I started looking for another Taekkyeon group where I could learn the more practical side of the martial art. My Taekwondo instructor in Seoul did some research and found me one of the most reputable Taekkyeon schools in the country, located in Insadong, a “traditional street” in downtown Seoul.

Even at this school, with a clear sparring focus, and known for hosting regular “Taekkyeon Battles,” I was surprised to discover the use of traditional Korean music. Warm-ups were done to the rhythm of a folk song and occasional singing, and during sparring sessions a live folk music percussion band accompanied the “battles.” Taekkyeon is innately connected to the traditional folk rhythms of Korea. Taekkyeon’s fundamental movements are based on a triangular stepping pattern known as pumbalbgi that follows the three-beat rhythm found in traditional Korean music. There is a conspicuous bounciness about Taekkyeon that echoes the up-and-down motions seen in Korean traditional dance. The knees are rhythmically bent and extended so that the techniques acquire a wavelike motion quite distinct from the martial arts of the neighboring China and Japan.

Not unlike a dance, the movements should be enjoyed. “Don’t be too serious,” advised Grandmaster Do one evening, “you should always smile while doing Taekkyeon.” And so I smiled, thinking back to the cheerful grannies that taught me to sing their childhood songs.

23 June 2017

New ITF Taekwon-Do & Hapkido Gym: Soo Shim Kwan ◦ Seoul

Master Kim Hoon
After about two decades of running gyms in Seoul, Master Kim Hoon has decided to take a sabbatical and a well-deserved rest. Therefore, the 'The Way' gym has closed at the end of May. I have been part of Master Kim Hoon's gym for nine years and have taught ITF Taekwon-Do and other martial arts at 'The Way' for most of that time.

With the closing of 'The Way', I suddenly needed a place for myself to train, and also assist my students in their journey towards black belts and beyond.

At first I thought of getting a training space close by my home. However, 'The Way' dojang was the only ITF Taekwon-Do space in central Seoul; we often received international visitors that wanted a place to practise ITF Taekwon-Do in the city of its birth. I thought it would be a terrible shame not to continue to have a "home" for ITF Taekwon-Do in Seoul that is accessible to most people. Although I live in Seoul, I live on the eastern outskirts, which might be a little difficult to access for tourists and other people interested in ITF Taekwon-Do.

I therefore decided to find a place more centrally located. I found a rooftop one-room apartment that I think will do the job. It is located in the Yongsan District, which is in central Seoul, close by the Itaewon and Noksapyeong neighbourhoods that are well-known among foreign residents in Korea. During the pleasant summer months one can exercise outside on the rooftop, with Namsan Mountain and Seoul Tower in the background. And on rainy days and during the cold months one can train inside. The idea of a rooftop training space has always appealed to me as historically that is where many martial artists in cities used to practise their discipline.

Dr Sanko Lewis going through a personal exercise routine

Soo Shim Kwan ◦ Seoul will function as my private dojang where I can continue my own martial arts practise. I'll also use it for private teaching and to continue the monthly "Seoul Martial Arts Circle" workshops that I've been hosting for several years. My focus will continue to be Korean martial arts, with emphasis on ITF Taekwon-Do and Hapkido, but also Taekkyeon and Yusul when time allows.

I will move into the new premises early July 2017. The first week or so will probably be dedicated to renovations, but I plan to get training there as soon as possible and will spend much of my time during my summer vacation at Soo Shim Kwan ◦ Seoul.

12 June 2017

Ten Suggestion for Martial Arts Learning at Black Belt Level by Manuel Adrogué

My friend, Master Manuel Adrogué, shared the following ten suggestions to black belt level martial artist, which I thought quite insightful. You can read his full post here, and be sure to visit his website for more of his writing.

Ten Suggestion in Connection with Martial Arts Learning at Black Belt Level by Manuel Adrogué

My suggestion in connection with martial arts learning at black belt level is:

1) If you want to learn, seek for knowledge (that is the point of reading books), if you want to improve, train hard.

2) During the first 15 years of your training, become really good at one thing (do not diversify) yet do some cross training (but make sure you are learning your stuff at a good school: if you feel your punches and kicks are weak and no one is telling you, leave that place and do not fool yourself just because those surrounding you accept mediocrity);

3) Do not judge other martial arts you do not fully understand, and always suspect you might be missing something;

4) Invest training by repeating the traditional methods but do not accept tradition as something written in stone (notwithstanding, keep faith on things beyond your current comprehension if stated by a trustworthy person);

5) Someone who does not have superior skills will never lead you to superior skills not matter his rank or certification (let me remind you that martial art skills are essentially physical fighting skills);

6) After 25 years of training the same thing, cost of opportunity raises dramatically and for every hour you spend training the same stuff in an unrealistic hope to improve would be better spent in adding a new skill;

7) If you misdirect your energy on arguments over terminology, legitimacy, heritage or details about
style you are not getting any better and actually working for the evil industry by refreshing the "organized despair" Bruce Lee was talking about in 1970;

8) Loyalty in the martial arts is not a commitment to limit yourself to one teacher (when you start school as a kid just one teacher teaches you reading and basic math, but as studies get higher, more specialized teachers show up, and in university they multiply by dozens. I do not see any reason for high martial art education to be different);

9) If you are a martial arts books fanatic, at minimum try to double your readings with other books (for me it is some legal readings plus history/religion/politics but any serious area will work –hey, superhero stuff qualifies as serious to me) so that you develop your rational thinking and a different referential point, plus that is what you will probably be making a contribution to the martial arts world by knowing that extra material; and

10) If you have read all this up to this point, you are in danger. I recommend you try to get a life outside the martial arts (I picked a beautiful gal who gave us four kids and for those two reasons I have a great excuse to spend some time out of the martial arts). Pick a sport, an art, or something that will make you smile and live! The martial arts are highly addictive and will attempt to override more important aspects of existence: GOD, LOVE TO BE FOUND IN PEOPLE. Ridendo dicere verum. 

11 June 2017

Exploring the Definition of Taekwon-Do

On another blog, I stumbled onto this contemplation on the "Definition of Taekwon-Do" which I wrote many, many years ago for a little Taekwon-Do publication in South Africa. It was a surprising discovery to find my old writing on someone else's blog. Since it was never published here on my own blog, I thought I'd share it here now.

Exploring the Definition of Taekwon-Do

Reference: Definition of Taekwon-Do (ITF Encyclopaedia: Vol. 1, p. 21-23.)

In volume one of the Encyclopaedia, the definition of Taekwon-Do begins with the statement "A way of life." It would do you good to read through this section in the Encyclopaedia on your own. However, I would like to highlight and comment on some sections.

"To put it simply Taekwon-Do is a version of unarmed combat designed for the purpose of self-defence." This statement says much about how we should consider Taekwon-Do. Firstly it is a form of combat. It is, in other words, a method of fighting, battling or making war! The goal of this combat, fighting or war is self-defense. In Korean history, the Korean nation only went to war as an act of self-defence. This is the same in Taekwon-Do, only fighting when needing to protect yourself or your loved ones.

"It is the scientific use of the body in the method of self-defence; a body that has gained the ultimate use of its facilities through physical training and mental training." It is quite clear that Taekwon-Do training has two parts; physical training being the one and mental training being the other.

The definition continues to say that though Taekwon-Do is a martial art: "…its discipline, technique and mental training are the mortar for building a strong sense of justice, fortitude, humility and resolve." It is Taekwon-Do's aim to uplift the character. The Taekwon-Do Black Belt should courageously and firmly stand for what is right no matter the circumstances, and with humility. (Note how humility is defined in Taekwon-Do: Moral Culture, Part Two, C. Be Humble.)

"It is this mental training," continues the section, "that separates the true practitioner from the sensationalist content with mastering only the fighting aspect of the art." When a student asked his Grand Master 'What is the essence of Taekwon-Do training?' the Grand Master answered: 'It is just mind training.'

Because Taekwon-Do is first and foremost an art of fighting, it has the innate possibility of being misused. Taekwon-Do is a "lethal weapon" intended for the "rapid destruction of…opponents." It is therefore imperative that "mental training must always be stressed to prevent the student from misusing it." This mental training is known as Moral Culture in Taekwon-Do. A student trained in Taekwon-Do, but without the Moral Culture to govern it, is to be compared with a gun in the hands of a child!

How little time is spent on anything else but the fighting aspect of the art? Most Taekwon-Do classes focus only on the fighting aspect. There are many reasons for this, but I am not going to discuss them now. However, the Black Belt must, therefore, make it his or her self-proclaimed obligation to spend quality time at this mental training that is so ignored. This mental training is one of the reason we can call Taekwon-Do an "art of self-defence".

Added to self-defence is "health". General Choi says that Taekwon-Do: "…indicates the mental training and the techniques of unarmed combat for self-defence as well as health…" How pitiful it is when we teach people how to defend themselves against aggressors, but we neglect to teach them principles for healthy living. If we do not teach our practitioners how to defend themselves against an unhealthy lifestyle we can just as well stop teaching them to defend against an enemy, for both have the ability to shorten the life. Self-defence should be broadened to self-preservation, which includes protection from various forms of attack on one's well-being. Do you now understand the importance of something like "Health Principles" in martial art study? It is the natural overflow of studying an art of self-defence.

Taekwon-Do is also defined as a "scientific" method of self-defence. "[I]nvolving the skilled application of punches, kicks, blocks and dodges with bare hands and feet to the rapid destruction of the moving opponent or opponents." This says quite a lot about the characteristics of Taekwon-Do. As a scientific method, it should include the "scientific use of the body" through scientifically sound techniques. In other words, the use of "punches, kicks, blocks and dodges" should make sense scientifically. This means that their use should make sense both on an anatomical/biological level as well as be in coherence with the science of physics.

Taekwon-Do's technical superiority is clear when we consider its understanding in the fields of anatomy and biology in such teachings as "Vital Spots", "Blocking and Attacking Tools" and the "Training Secrets" and in its use of Newtonian Laws in such principles as the "Theory of Power".

What many overlooks is that Taekwon-Do's ultimate goal, as an art of self-defence, is fighting against "moving" opponents. As an art that relies on traditional physics, Black Belts should familiarise themselves with these theories of motion, balance and momentum in the context of human combat. The Encyclopaedia states: "Most of the devastating manoeuvres in Taekwon-Do are based especially on the initial impact of a blow plus the consequential additional force provided by the rebound of the opponents moving part or body."

When I tell students that Taekwon-Do has much in common with styles such as Tai Chi Ch'uan or Aikido they are shocked. This is because of an unbalanced understanding of Taekwon-Do. Clearly, they have never read the following sentence that follows on the previous quote: "Similarly by using the attacker's force or momentum, the slightest push is all that is needed to upset his or her equilibrium and to topple him or her." Does not this sound like something from an Aikido lesson? No, dear reader, this is basic Taekwon-Do theory and part of the "definition" of our art!

The final thing I would like to highlight from this section of the Encyclopaedia is that Taekwon-Do, which is "A way of life" should be natural and instinctive. "In the case of the students of Taekwon-Do who have been in constant practice or the experts themselves, they spend no time thinking, as such an action comes automatically to them. Their actions, in short, have become conditioned reflexes."

In conclusion, I hope that from the above, you as a Black Belt have become aware of some of the voids in your understanding of Taekwon-Do. Study these voids and through practice fill them and you will have attained the mind of a Taekwon-Do Black Belt.

16 April 2017

ITF's Sine Wave Motion and Korean Body Culture

Every so often I stumble upon (or am pulled into) an online conversation about ITF Taekwon-Do’s sine wave motion. This happened again recently. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to discuss all the points addressed on these online discourses. Many of the concerns I have addressed here on my blog, over the years. This blog post is in response to one recent comment on a sine wave motion related discussion:

“[The sine wave motion] was only ‘created’ [by General Choi] to discredit the pioneer instructors who left the ITF, saying they were not teaching real Tae Kwon-Do.”

The writer of this comment may have gotten this view from Alex Gillis’ book A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do, Updated and Revised (2nd ed. p. 149). Unfortunately, that would be a wrong reading of the text, and a wrong understanding of the evolution of ITF Taekwon-Do under General Choi. I concede that Gillis does suggest that the sine wave motion was used politically to discredit other instructors for not doing his version of Taekwon-Do; however, the text doesn’t explicitly state that that was the reason the sine wave motion was “created”. (Footnote 1)

It is my opinion that the “creation” (for lack of a better term) of the sine wave motion was to make Taekwon-Do more authentically Korean. From early on, General Choi was on a mission to make a Korean art. It is well known that Taekwon-Do was originally, primarily based on Japanese (Shotokan) Karate. It is also a known fact that General Choi purposefully set out to make a “Korean” martial art, and started making significant changes to the karate he studied in Japan. His development of Taekwon-Do away from Japanese Karate towards a more Korean martial art was a continual process. Scholars like myself and Dr. He-Young Kimm agree that the thing that changed Taekwon-Do from being a Japanese style to a Korean style was not the superficial alteration of where the arms cross for blocks or such technicalities, or even the development of new patterns, which are based on very similar templates than Japanese Karate. Instead, the thing that changed the art from being Japanese is the exchange for Korean “traditional body movement” (Taekwondo History, p. 40). Kimm correctly states that the sine wave motion’s “up-and-down motion ... is in harmony with Korean traditional body culture” and that it has its origin in “traditional Korean body culture” (p. 81). In fact, Kimm goes so far as to say that Taekwon-Do only became a “true Korean martial art through the use of the ‘sine wave’ motion in the early 1980s” (27). It is the sine wave motion which forever changed the DNA, so to speak, of Taekwon-Do, because the sine wave motion is based on the DNA of Korean body culture, as opposed to Japanese body culture. (For what it is worth, martial arts historian Dr. He-Young Kimm is not an ITF Taekwon-Do practitioner, so his comments come with a degree of objectivity that I as an ITF practitioner might be perceived to lack.)

I have lived in Korea now for nearly a decade, and researching Korean body culture has been an ongoing interest of mine. I cannot count how many Korean traditional dance performances I have seen (as I attend dance performance sometimes several times a month); I’ve spoken to quite a few traditional Korean dancers and choreographers (including traditional dance scholars); I’ve studied Taekkyeon (Korea’s “folk” martial art) and discussed the movements with highly acclaimed Taekkyeon masters; I’m currently studying Korean drumming, at the National Theater of Korea, to better understand traditional Korean rhythm; I’ve even looked into Korean shamanism in order to get a better understanding of Korean body culture. While my researched is still ongoing, here are two significant elements that I think essential to Korean body culture:

First, Korean body culture has an intentional “verticality.” I came across the term the first time in the book Korean Dance: Pure Emotion and Energy (Korea Essentials Book 15), which describes it as follows:

The theme of up-and-down movements persists in Korean dance. In slower forms like court dances and those influenced by Buddhism, dancers regularly rotate between bending and extending their knees. In faster dances such as mask dances and certain folk dances, the bent knees are released in a burst of kinetic energy into a jump.” (p. 15.)

Simply put, “verticality” refers to up-and-down movements, usually achieved through the bending and straightening of the knees. However, this “verticality” doesn’t always have to involve the knees; for instance, apart from using the knees, in Korean traditional dance, the “verticality” is often emphasized by the lifting and dropping of the shoulders. “Verticality” is also noticeable with Korean drummers while seated, so as a concept it can be any type of up-and-down movement of the body.

The Korean term used for how this “verticality” is accomplished is gulshin dongjak 굴신 동작, which can roughly be translated into English as “springiness” or “elasticity”, although more often as “bending and stretching” or “extension and contraction”.

The second element of traditional Korean body culture is a three-beat rhythm. Basic Korean traditional dances, as well as traditional Korean music, usually follow a ¾ meter. We see a three-beat rhythm used in the basic stepping (pumbalbki 품밟기) of the Korean folk martial art Taekkyeon 택견, and we notice a three beat rhythm in the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do. (The origin of the three beat may by the philosophical concept of sam-yoso 삼요소, as the idea of yin-yang and Korea’s three-lobed yin-yang known as sam-taegeuk 삼태극 is part of Korean traditional dance.)

The sine wave motion has brought to ITF Taekwon-Do these two elements: a clear sense of verticality and a three beat rhythm. Thus, I disagree that the sine wave motion was simply “created” to discredit non-ITF practitioners. No, the sine wave was “created” to make Taekwon-Do a truly Korean martial art, rather than just a rebranding of Karate. The sine wave is one of many deliberate changes made by General Choi in his pursuit of creating an authentically Korean martial art.

A part of me want to be so rash as to say that if you practice Taekwon-Do as a Korean martial art, then gulshin dongjak should be part of your system, whether it is the “ITF sine-wave Tul motion” or the “WTF free-sparring stepping/hopping motions”, which according to Dr Kimm both “come from the same type of traditional Korean body culture” (p. 80). If you do not want to do gulshin dongjak, maybe you should rather do Karate, which follows Japanese body culture based on Shintoism.

A final thought on the idea that the sine wave motion was “created” by General Choi: I think the aforementioned discussion on traditional Korean body culture makes it clear that what we refer to as the sine wave motion in ITF Taekwon-Do was not “created” by General Choi at all, but instead is part and partial of traditional Korean body movement, and that General Choi only appropriated this into Taekwon-Do; he didn't invent it.

The big critique people have against vertical motion in Taekwon-Do is a practical one:

So-what if ITF Taekwon-Do's sine wave motion is an embodiment of traditional Korean movement as seen in other Korean activities such as traditional Korean dance—does the sine wave motion have any practical combative value? 

That is the real critique and my answer to that is, yes, it does have combative value. First, the discerning martial artist will note that the same principles are used in many other martial arts (Footnote 2). Furthermore, the sine wave principle is immensely useful for joint locks and throwing techniques. Also, if you understand how to use it as a way for generating vertical (either upwards or downwards) power, then it compliments the other power generation methods such as the hip rotation a lot. It is also useful in instances where hip rotation is not possible; for example, think of a wedging block or twin punch. Just don’t be one of those daft people that say that the sine wave doesn’t contribute power to techniques moving at a horizontal trajectory. Of course, it doesn’t. If I was a teenager I would have facepalmed myself and exclaimed “duh!”

To conclude, the sine wave motion was used to differentiate between General Choi's Taekwon-Do and other Taekwon-Do; however, that was not the reason for its inclusion in ITF Taekwon-Do. The purpose of the sine wave motion, I am convinced, was to make Taekwon-Do authentically Korean by including two elements that are essential to traditional Korean body culture: verticality and a three beat rhythm. Furthermore, when correctly understood and appropriately applied, the sine wave motion does have practical, combative benefits.


Footnote 1: While Alex Gillis doesn’t say that the sine wave motion was created specifically for discrediting other Taekwon-Do practitioners, such a reading is easy to come to, because the preceding paragraph states that the pattern Ju-Che was designed as a gift to communist North Korea, and that the sine wave motion which was used to discredit other Taekwon-Do instructors was also a gift to the North. My opinion is that although the sine wave motion may have been used as a political tool to discredit certain people, that was not the reason for its creation.

Footnote 2: The same principles found in the sine wave motion can also be found in other martial arts. For example:

  • Aikido [12]
  • Hsing-I / Xingi [12]

Sources Cited:

Gilles, A. 2016. A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do. Updated and Revised Edition.
Kimm, H. Y. 2013. Taekwondo History.
Seoul Selection. Korean Dance: Pure Emotion and Energy.

23 March 2017

Do you matseogi, gyeorugi, or daeryeon?

It was Dr George Vitale (ITF VIII Dan) who first pointed it out to me that the Korean term General Choi Hong-Hi, the principle founder of original Taekwon-Do, designated for sparring is different from the general term used for sparring in most other forms of Korean martial arts—including in Kukki (WTF) style of Taekwondo. In General Choi’s ITF Taekwon-Do we use the term matseogi 맞서기, whereas in most other forms of Taekwon-Do the term gyeorugi 겨루기 is used.

At first, I didn’t think much of it. I just assumed it was one of those general differences in terminology that are typical across styles. It was only after considering the systematic progress of “sparring” in ITF Taekwon-Do that I realized that the use of the term matseogi rather than gyeorugi was very deliberate. Of course, I should have known better. The more I study General Choi’s use of (Korean) terms, the more I realize how pedantic he was about his choice of terminology. Unfortunately, much of this is lost in translation, and often official translations into English are far from ideal. But I digress. In this essay, I want to explore the meanings of gyeorugi and matseogi, and point out why the distinction is important. I will also address another related term, daeryeon.

The term gyeorugi is based on the verb gyeoruda 겨루다 which means “to compete, vie for, or content with”. One could also use the term in a political sense, for example when one politician opposes another during an election; i.e. the politicians are contending for the same political office. The inflection gyeorugi, in the context of martial arts, basically means to dual, or to fight as in a competition. There is an obvious sport or competitive connotation to the term. Hence, the English translation of gyeorugi as “sparring” is acceptable, although “competing” is likely the closest translation of gyeorugi. 

On the other hand, the term matseogi does not denote a sport or competitive meaning, although it does suggest a confrontation. The term matseogi as a whole has a particular meaning that we will get to soon, but I’d like to first break the word into parts: mat 맞- and seogi 서기. The former, based on the verb matda 맞다 means to face something, as when you turn your body towards someone to greet them. This example of facing to greet someone is, in fact, one of the ways the word is generally understood. (Not to be confused with the homonyms that mean “correct” and “agreement”.) Seogi, based on the verb seoda 서다 literally means to stand up. If we were to read mat-seogi in this way, within the context of Taekwon-Do, it simply means to take in a position facing your training partner. This interpretation seems very appropriate when we consider the pre-arranged sparring (yagsok matseogi 약속 맞서기) exercises, like three-step sparring (sambo matseogi 삼보맞서기) and two-step sparring (ilbo matseogi 이보맞서기).

However, the term matseogi is generally understood in its entirety, as an inflection of the verb matseoda 맞서다, meaning “to oppose, to confront, to stand up to, or stand against, to face an enemy, or resist a force.” As pointed out earlier, unlike gyeorugi which has a competition association, matseogi implies a completely different type of conflict. Instead of a sport connotation, matseogi has a defensive connotation. The implied meaning is not competitive, but combative. Orthodox ITF Taekwon-Do pedagogy (and by this I mean what is in the ITF Encyclopaedia) has basically no training geared towards competition and tournament sparring. The implication, at least for ITF Taekwon-Do, is that all the so-called “sparring” drills, from three-step sparring to free sparring and self-defence exercises, have as their end goal not improving one’s tournament sparring ability, but rather to improve your combative, i.e. self-defence, skill.

It might actually be a good idea for ITF practitioners that participate in tournament sparring to follow Kukki Taekwondo's lead and refer to this activity as gyeorugi too, so not to confuse it with free sparring (jayu matseogi 자유 맞서기) which is a form of sparring without rules or limits on attacking tools or targets; in other words, a reality based fighting exercise, which is part of ITF's systematic pedagogy. As I explained in my essay on the purpose and value of pre-arranged sparring, each type of matseogi is part of “a continuum of training that becomes progressively less abstract and approaches the real combative encounter in a systematic way relative to the practitioner’s skill level,” for the purpose of combat (i.e. self-defence).

Fellow Taekwon-Do blogger Ørjan Nilsen brought my attention to a third term, daeryeon 대련, that was used by the early Kwan, such as Moo Duk Kwan, including General Choi's O Do Kwan. General Choi's early Taekwon-Do writings such as the 1966 Taekwon-Do Manual ("태권도 지침") and the 1972 Taekwon-Do Handbook ("태권도 교서") use the term daeryeon for sparring. It is still the term used for sparring in Tang Soo Do to this day. Daeryeon is actually a very appropriate term to use as it translates into English as “sparring” or “fighting,” without the competitive connotation that gyeorugi has. Why then was it not adopted by General Choi and the Kukki Taekwondoists? My hypothesis is because daeryeon is not a pure Korean word, but based on hanja (Chinese characters), 對鍊. Many people are aware that Taekwon-Do had a strong Karate foundation, hence many early terminology were based on Karate terms. The first Taekwon-Do masters, who at that time still basically practiced Koreanized Karate, often used the same terminology based on hanja, but simply pronounced them in Korean. We still see remnants of that in some Korean martial arts; for instance, the term for “knife-hand” in Tang Soo Do and Hapkido is sudo  수도, based on the hanja 手刀. The Japanese equivalent shuto (notice the similarity with the Korean pronunciation), used in Karate, is based on the same hanja. In Taekwon-Do (both ITF and Kukki) the term sonnal 손칼, which is a purely Korean collocation, is used instead. If I'm not mistaken, General Choi was the first to move away from using Shino-Korean (i.e. Korean words based on hanja) to using pure Korean terminology. His motive was very much a patriotic one. He wanted to evolve Taekwon-Do into a truly Korean martial art and a primary way for doing so was to use pure Korean terminology. There was also a practical purpose to this. As Taekwon-Do under General Choi was developed within a military context, he abandoned the more poetic descriptions that were often part of the Chinese descriptions for martial arts techniques. Commanding soldiers requires direct, precise language, rather than the sometimes ambiguous terms still found in some Chinese martial arts.

As a side note, my PhD promotor suggested I look into the possibility that General Choi's involvement with northern Korea as sponsors for his Taekwon-Do Encyclopedia need also be taken into account, as they tend to be language purists and also refrain from using hanja. However, Taekwon-Do historian Dr George Vitale assured me that "the terms were already in use well before [Gen. Choi] ever went to NK in 1980". Furthermore, although the first edition of the Encyclopaedia was indeed printer there, General Choi had autonomy over the content, as the financial support for the printing came from the publisher of the Tae Kwon Do Times magazine, and not from the north, as I had thought.

In short, daelyeon is a good translation for sparring, but it is a more traditional word, based on Chinese characters. As Taekwon-Do evolved, mostly pure Korean terminology were adopted. The pure Korean words gyeorugi and matseogi are now more commonly used. In Kukki Taekwon-Do the term gyeorugi with its competitive connotation is primarily used, and is a good translation for tournament sparring. This was a sensible choice for the Kukki branch of Taekwondo which already evolved towards sportive emphasis from as early as the 1960s. On the other hand, the term matseogi that is used in ITF Taekwon-Do does not denote competition but rather alludes to combat as in a self-defence situation. General Choi's military background may have been part of the motivation in adopting this term. Interestingly, daelyeon seems to be the most neutral term when neither sport or self-defence is implied, but simply referring to fighting or sparring in general.

17 March 2017

Korea Hapkido Federation - Ulji Kwan - Colour Belt Syllabus

I started Hapkido at an Ulji Kwan dojang back in 2006. The Ulji Kwan is one of the big Kwans in the Korea Hapkido Federation. Having spoken to some sources, apparently, the Ulji Kwan group, and particularly Master Jo's dojang where I started my Hapkido journey, is a very traditional style of Hapkido.

Since my Hapkido base is with the Ulji Kwan, I thought it valuable to share Master Jo's colour belt syllabus. Just before he retired from full-time teaching, he video recorded his colour belt syllabus with the help of instructors Duke Kim 김경호 사범님 and (Dr) John Johnson 사범님. I also got to help out a bit with the recording behind the scenes when they started the project.

Following are links to the colour belt syllabus from lowest (8th geup) to highest colour belt rank (1st geup).

Videos of the higher ranking syllabus (1st Dan and 2nd Dan) can also be found on Instructor Duke Kim's Youtube-channel. Note that in Hapkido the colour belt geup numbering is in descending order (8 to 1); however, at black belt the geup numbering follows an ascending order (i.e. 1st Dan, 1st geup through 11th geup; and 2nd Dan, 1st geup through 13th geup).

My own style of Hapkido has evolved somewhat away from how it is practised at the Ulji Kwan, possibly to a slightly more Chinese influence: a chi-na 逮捕, as the Chinese call it, or geum-na  금나 as it is known in Korean, way of doing joint-locks and throws. Or at least, towards a more ITF Taekwon-Do way of integrating geum-na. Those that have trained joint-locks, throws and other such grappling techniques would know that I fully incorporate ideas such as ITF's sine-wave motion to explain and perform many of these techniques.

06 March 2017

Martial Artists Sharing Ideas & ITF's Sine Wave Motion

About a week ago some friends and I came together to hang out and have a quick dinner. Since we are all martial artists, it didn't take long for us to start talking about martial arts in general, and pretty soon we were on our feet sharing ideas. It was indeed a most memorable evening and a great way for any martial artist to spend his or her time, with other like-minded people, putting egos aside and learning from each other. The stylists, myself included, in the video represent experience in the following arts: Kukki (WTF) Taekwondo, ITF Taekwon-Do, boxing, Tai Chi Chuan, Bagua, Wing Chun, Kickboxing, Taekkyeon, Jeet Kune Do, Mantis, Hapkido, and others.

One thing that stood out for me is how open those practicing Chinese martial arts are to the idea of "sine wave motion" in ITF Taekwon-Do. I've had conversations about this topic with people from many different styles with different levels of agreement or dismissal. But in my experience, the Chinese stylists always "gets" it. I've long argued that as long as people continue to try and interpret ITF Taekwon-Do in a historic Karatesque manner, they will simply fail to understand the new evolutionary path that ITF Taekwon-Do has undergone -- moving away from its Shotokan Karate roots to a more Korean kinaesthetic that is more in line with Chinese martial arts, than Karatesque Japanese martial arts.

21 February 2017

Jan & Feb 2017 South Africa Report

I would like to report a little on my journey over the last two months during my annual South Africa travels.

The first dojang I had the privilege of visiting was the Pinetown Stingers club, in KwaZulu Natal. Whenever I visit the Durban area, I also try to visit the Stingers dojang. With my previous visit I wasn't able to visit the dojang, but I did visit with Sabeomnim Sean Cremer at his house. This year, however, my travels coincided with their training, so I could attend one of their session. As always, it was lots of fun training with the KZN guys. My friend Damien, who was a student with me here in Korea and also tested for his black belt under me, was also able to come through from Durban to visit. I've always had a close connection with KZN Taekwon-Do and visiting them is like visiting family.

Of course also visited my Soo Shim Kwan family.

First was my visit with Horangi Dojang in Grobblersdal. This club is just going from strength to strength under the leadership of Instructor Gerhard Louw. I was impressed with how the higher ranking students have improved since I saw them last year -- their are defintely some future champions among them, and the eagerness of the lower belts shows me that Instructor Gerhard is doing a great job.

During the two nights that I taught at the Horangi Dojang, I tried to cover several principles. On the second evening, I was requested to demonstrate some patterns. Last year when I performed patterns there, I was a little sick, so was disappointed with my demonstration. This year, I performed several patterns and felt much more pleased with what I was able to present to them. Bsbnim Gerhard and I also did Gae Baek Tul together, and we also demonstrated some slightly more advanced self-defence techniques, to the glee of the students. For the much of the evening, we practised some self-defence techniques, but more simplified since the Horangi dojang's members are mostly children.

Near the end of my time in South Africa I went to Potchefstroom and visited the other Soo Shim Kwan dojang, the Potchefstroom Taekwon-Do Club (PTC). Under the guidance of Instructor Philip de Vos, there is a good standard amongst the students. The Potch club have always been small in numbers, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Since PTC is an adults only club, I used the opportunity to explain some important principles. I expounded on the ITF pedagogy as a whole. The club has a few new members, so I wanted to give the students a broader understanding--a theoretical platform--to understand how ITF Taekwon-Do progressively guides a person with no prior fighting experience through a slow process of conditioning (physically and mentally), for a violent, combative encounter. I touched on ideas like the sparring phases, the Golden Move, and how ITF Taekwon-Do attempts to prevent the freeze reflex and trigger a fight response during an adrenalized encounter. The classes had a little bit of a lecture feel to them, which is not a bad thing occasionally since it is associated with a university.

Next year PTC will have its 20 year anniversary. I started the club in 1998. As part of the celebration, PTC will be the host for the National Championships in 2018. I really hope I'd be able to attend the event.

A highlight of this trip was, of course, the Hapkido Seminar that I presented in Pretoria. It was the first Korea Hapkido Federation seminar hosted in South Africa, to a primarily black belt audience.

This seven hours long hands-on workshop covered the most important aspects of Hapkido, from break falls and rolling, to joint locks, throws, pins, and even some unique kicks. The attendees were all tired, bruised and nearly broken, but their eagerness to learn kept them from quitting, and even after such an exhausting event they were still able to muster the smiles you can witness in the photo above. This seminar functioned as the first formal KHF event, with the intention of establishing an offical KHF branch in South Africa. I in particular want to thank Sbnim Sean Cremer and the other KZN members that travelled so far to attend the seminar.

Martial art wise, it was a particularly productive visit for me this year. On my way back from South Africa to Korea, I stopped over in Hong Kong, where I also got to train a little in Wing Chun, which was a wonderful experience that opened my eyes to new ideas and helped me to rethink my understanding of ITF Taekwon-Do as well.

I wish all the Soo Shim Kwan members, and all other readers of this blog, a wonderful 2017. My you experience progress in your martial art path, and also grow in the other areas of your life: vocationally, relationally, mentally and spiritually.



23 January 2017

Hapkido Registration & South Africa Seminar

I am happy to announce that the Soo Shim Kwan has registered with the Korea Hapkido Federation. This comes after my promotion to 4th Dan in Hapkido in August, 2016.

Although I have always supplemented our ITF Taekwon-Do syllabus with skills from Hapkido, these recent developments bring more formality to our Hapkido connection. It also allows our students to officially progress in Hapkido along side ITF Taekwon-Do if they so choose.

On the 29th of January, 2017, I will give a formal Hapkido seminar and workshop in Centurion, South Africa for Soo Shim Kwan and SATI black belts. The six hour seminar will cover basic Hapkido principles, break falls & rolls, locks (wrist locks, elbow locks, shoulder locks, and knee locks), throws, and other miscellaneous techniques.