27 October 2014

Contemplations on the Evolution of ITF Taekwon-Do as a Style

I watched the great Karate movie Black Belt again. The movie's opening sequence has the three main characters—all karateka—performing Sanshin, which is a type of kata during which the whole body is tense and the muscles flexed, so that all movements during the kata requires muscular tension. This got me thinking about hard styles versus soft styles again, and where exactly ITF Taekwon-Do fits in.

First, back to Sanshin kata—this form is basically a type of isometric exercise presented as a kata. Although it is originally from China, it is probably more famous for being practised by the Karate styles of Okinawa. While Sanshin-kata does present some basic punches and blocks (and make use of only one stance although some stepping, applying the same stance, may occur depending on the version practised), it is generally not trained for practical application, but almost solely as an exercise to improve muscle tension, breathing, and mental focus. Some sources may also include Ki-development in this list. During Sanshin-kata the instructor will often inspect the students' form (known as shime checks) by hitting different parts of their musculature to test if there are any weakness, any lack of tension. In some Chinese versions of Sanshin-kata, the kata can be performed with some level of relaxation, particularly while a technique is in motion in order to facilitate faster motions. In the Japanese / Okinawan styles, however, Sanshin-kata is usually done with emphasis on tensed, flexed muscles throughout the performance.

Obviously not all Karate kata are performed in the way that Sanshin-kata is performed. Nevertheless, for quite a number of Karate styles, Sanshin-kata is considered foundational, and while the other kata might be done at more realistic tempos, there still generally exist a similar sense of “hardness” to them, a similar sense of focus is striven for. While Sanshin-kata is practised by many Karate styles, especially the original Okinawan systems, it has become the bedrock of full contact Karate systems such as Kyokushin Karate; the reason being that Sanshin-kata is well suited to strengthen and toughen the body in order to endure hard, full contact strikes. Their bodies are so hardened that blows that would put a regular person down, they take withstand.

Contrast this with a soft style martial art, where the most advanced practitioners are praised not for their muscular tension or hardened bodies, but for their extreme relaxation. The aim is not to harden the body in order to endure impact, but rather to follow a Taoist approach of “going with the flow,” of yielding to the force, of non-resistance. Think, for example, of an Aikido or Tai-Chi master who are often praised for being relaxed in their motions, for their muscles being strangely supple with hardly any tension and when doing quite difficult techniques.

I once heard a legend of a Tai-Chi master who had a sparrow perched on his finger—immured. To fly away, the little bird needs to push away with its legs, but so sensitive was the Tai-Chi master's to force, that whenever the little bird tried to push away, the master's arm would yield to the bird's push, and so negating the force, keeping the bird captured by it's inability to push off of the master's finger. This legend epitomizes the relaxedness striven for in true soft style martial arts that completely yields to the attacker's force, and use the opponent's force against them.

The aim of this post is not to set up one against the other. I'm not asking which is better, a hard style approach or a soft style approach. What I do want to discuss here is ITF Taekwon-Do, and how I am of the opinion that while Taekwon-Do definitely started out as a hard style martial art, it has evolved into something else.

There is no question that in its early days, Taekwon-Do was a hard style martial art, with strong roots in (Shotokan) Karate.

I'm not sure if the early Taekwon-Do pioneers practised something akin to Sanshin-kata. However, when I started Taekwon-Do there were Sanshin-like moments in the patterns in the style of Taekwon-Do I did at the time. The slow motion techniques in the Chang-Hon patterns were often performed with a tension and concentration that is reminiscent of Sanshin. I still remember seeing black belts perform those slow motion techniques with such muscular strain that their limbs vibrated and veins stood taught in their necks and on their foreheads. This was particularly the case during pattern demonstrations at tournaments. Back in the day when kihaps were still performed, the moves that were accompanied by kihaps were equally tense—a good kihap would be accompanied by a face purple with tension. Now I'm not sure if this happened at other Taekwon-Do pockets as well, or if it was peculiar to the system I trained at, which had very strong connections with (Moo Duk Kwan) Tang Soo Do, in which such slow motion movements done with Sanshin-like tension and concentration, and roof-lifting kiaps were part of a number of their forms.

I still remember the hard and strong urgency with which we performed our patterns when I started Taekwon-Do. My brother and I often competed in “all style” tournaments which brought Taekwon-Do, Tang Soo Do, and Karate practitioners under one roof, where we competed together in both sparring and forms divisions. In the forms division practitioners performed the forms of their respective styles. Obviously the judges who were representatives of the different styles in attendance at these tournaments often did not know the actual sequences of the forms they judged. The criteria they used to assess the forms therefore did not include “correctness of the form,” but used the other typical criteria when judging forms within the hard style paradigm. My brother and I won quite a number of medals at these tournaments—clearly we had performed our forms within the hard style idiom of the Karate, Tang Soo Do and Taekwon-Do judges in attendance. I doubt those judges would be equally accepting were I to perform a form following my current ITF Taekwon-Do way of movement. While they may see power at the moments of impact, the ITF practitioner seems far too relaxed, not nearly tense enough in between the “impact” points, with a tempo that is much too slow. And in my imagination I find it almost impossible to think how these judges would have judged, say, a Yang Style Tai Chi practitioner performing his or her form. Unfortunately at that time there were no soft stylists who attended these tournaments, so I never had the opportunity to see how they would have been judged, but I can guess that the Tai Chi form would score terribly low on most of the typical criteria, such as power, intensity, and speed. Even such judging criteria as concentration and balance would be problematic, since concentration in the Karate sense means something quite different than what it means in the Tai Chi sense, and balance in Karate is often judged according to an understanding of linear lines of movement and transference of force, rather than the gentle circular lines employed by Tai Chi Chuan and the subtle shifts of the centre of gravity.

Although ITF Taekwon-Do is something different from Tai Chi Chuan—I mean, it is not a typical soft style martial art—it is definitely not the karatesque hard style martial art it was in its infancy. I realise that I have written about this numerous times before. My argument is that ITF Taekwon-Do is not a hard style anymore, in the way that Karate is a hard style. There is no version of Sanshin-kata in ITF Taekwon-Do's 24 pattern set, neither are there any remnants of Sanshin like motions in the forms, something that still existed in the little Taekwon-Do pocket in a small town in South Africa where I started my Taekwon-Do career 20 years ago. We have all but removed conditioning from our patterns: the stances are not unnecessarily deep to help with strength training, nor are the movements performed with an urgent tempo to mimic combat. These days I'm spending most of my time learning how to relax, practising how to move with the least amount of muscular tension, and even trying to initiate movement through the very act of muscle relaxation. I find ITF strikes move more like a ball-on-chain than like a crowbar, to use Bruce Lee's analogy, with emphasis on sequential motion / kinetic chaining and what the Chinese would call fajin, or balgyeon as it is known in Korean.

I find it difficult to define this new hard-soft style hybrid that ITF Taekwon-Do has become. It refuses to be boxed into a neat definition. One moment it depicts the hardness of Karate, the next the suppleness of Tai Chi Chuan. It often flows along linear lines associated with Karate, but those linear lines are consistently initiated with subtle circles and curves that one gets in Chinese styles. Then there is that peculiar bounciness—seen also in the Korean folk art Taekkyeon, which is completely shunned by Karate where keeping level throughout ones movement is the expected norm. A major part of this “bounciness”—i.e. the sine wave motion—is to instil the habit of relaxation and suppleness, but also to teach a way of “controlled falling” somewhat akin to the Chinese internal art Xingyi.

ITF Taekwon-Do has indeed evolved into something quite interesting and it is still in the process of evolving. I like how it caters to different people. There are those that want it to be (and remain) a hard style, and that is how they practise it. There are those, like myself, who embrace the soft style aspects that have become part of its DNA and I enjoy this part of ITF Taekwon-Do's evolution. I particularly like that it is an organic evolution, rather than an institutionalized one. Apart from the original sine wave motion impetus, this blossoming of “soft style” elements is not specifically pushed for by any of the ITF organizations; nevertheless, more and more people are recognizing it and practicing it. Neither are any of the big organizations actively advocating it, or systematically explaining it. Expositions on the sine wave motion, it's emphasis on relaxation, and its relationship to soft style concepts such as principles of the circle, the wave, and so forth are done mostly by independent writers such as myself and Master Manuel Adrogue. The fascinating thing about this is that commentators like myself and Master Adrogue and others have no previous training connections and who do not come from the same lineages, yet we interpret the principles in a similar way, and come to the same conclusions. For instance, when I first met Master Manuel Adrogue from Argentina and we had an opportunity to talk and train together, we found to our big surprise that in many ways we move the same—we had thought that our way of interpreting ITF Taekwon-Do, our way of moving, is unique, but it turns out that we are quite in sync, and I suspect there are many more of us who in some ways consider ourselves “rogue,” only to constantly find ourselves not as original as we might have thought.

In short, ITF Taekwon-Do as a general style is still changing. I don't think it will ever become a fully soft-style in the sense of Aikido or Tai-Chi, but it has also moved away from its hard-style origins. Under the leadership of the different ITF organizations I guess they will attempt to systematize it, and prevent it from changing, possibly all in an attempt to keep it “authentic” in the way General Choi left it upon his death, but such attempts, I believe will not be successful. I believe that it will continue to evolve; however it is a directed evolution, based on the Theory of Power, Training Secrets and other principles and guidelines already found in the system.

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