Moo Duk Kwan translates to the "School of Martial Virtue." It was founded in 1945 by Hwang Kee. The Moo Duk Kwan lineage remains very much alive, although splintered into several different factions such as Tang Soo Do, Soo Bahk Do, and Taekwondo. Because of this splintering, the curriculums taught at schools claiming Moo Duk Kwan lineage vary greatly.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Things to Consider when Practicing Poomsae

In an earlier article, I stated my viewpoints on whether Taekwondo poomsae contained deeper applications than what initially meets the eye. Basically, my opinion was that those who created the poomsae currently used in Kukki Taekwondo did not have deeper applications in mind when they designed the poomsae. Because the Taekwondo poomsae were heavily influenced by Okinawan kata however, some of the movements in poomsae are almost identical to those found in the older Okinawan forms. Although I believe the true idea behind what the founder of those kata intended to pass along are unable to be learned through poomsae because of the way in which the movements were strung together are different in the poomsae, some of the movements remain the same, and therefore, we can still learn from them.

One thing that causes Taekwondo practitioners to dislike, or quickly lose interest in poomsae is due to the way they are taught in the majority of dojangs around the world. Poomsae are generally poorly taught, in my opinion, by the majority of Taekwondo instructors, and are typically taught simply for another grading requirement. There is typically little in-depth instruction, and questions that students may have usually produce poor, unrealistic answers that do not satisfy them and cause them to lose interest in doing forms because they do not understand WHY they are doing them or WHAT they are learning from them. The way the student thinks is that poomsae is just some random movements you need to memorize in order to get your next belt, and so poomsae becomes something that you just have to do to so you can move up in rank, and no further thought is put into forms practice.

In order to understand poomsae, it would behoove the Taekwondo practitioner to look at the roots of his forms, and look to Karate. In the early days of Karate, it was meant purely for self defense. Karate had no sport aspect, and there was no squaring off with an opponent in an actual "fight." Karate was meant for use against random acts of violence. Typical, unexpected, street attacks. If you have ever noticed, our 3-step and 1-step sparring drills, as believed to be created by Gigo Funakoshi, and kata/poomsae, never begin in a fighting stance, nor do we see a fighting stance throughout. This supports the idea that kata were created to be used in self defense, and not a typical street fight.

The idea of creating a sporting aspect in Karate came later on in the art, and ultimately followed into the creation of Taekwondo. Because of this, the idea of Karate and Taekwondo being purely for self defense was lost. As a result, people stopped viewing their arts from a purely defensive aspect, and this surely is a big reason why poomsae and kata are so misunderstood today. When the movements in poomsae are explained today, they are usually incorrect, and this is mostly due to the mindset behind the kinds of attacks we think we are defending against. If you are practicing poomsae techniques and coming up with applications to defend yourself against roundhouse kicks, and straight punches, etc. you are showing that you do not understand poomsae.

When kata were created, they were meant to be used against typical street attacks. No common street thug is going to attack with a perfect reverse punch or roundhouse kick. The most common attacks are going to be grabs, pushes, haymaker punches, and typically attacks from very close ranges. These are the attacks that kata, and therefore poomsae, are trying to teach you to defend against. The people who created the traditional Okinawan kata did so with these attacks in mind. In my opinion, I do not believe the same is true for the creators of Taekwondo poomsae. Even so, many techniques and/or sequences found in Taekwondo poomsae come from Karate kata, and therefore, the applications for defense against these street attacks still may exist.

The typical explanations for the techniques in poomsae are sometimes absurd. The ones that usually bother me the most are the explanations usually given for double blocks. When looking at some youtube videos of Grandmaster Lee, Kyu Hyung, who is revered for his knowledge of poomsae, and seeing him explain that a double block is used to block two separate attacks from different directions, I cant help but shake my head. Does nobody else have a problem with this explanation? Does nobody realize how unrealistic and impractical this explanation is? It is because of things such as this that I do not think Taekwondo poomsae were created with applications in mind. These poomsae are too young for us to already have a misunderstanding of the original intentions behind them. Also, the Kukkiwon has always been very specific of their techniques and requirements, and documents them quite well. If there were any deeper applications purposely placed in the poomsae, they surely would have been documented.

But like I said, even though many movements in the poomsae are misunderstood, and were not placed in the form with their true intentions included, they still can be valuable learning tools if we look back to our Karate roots and try to understand the movements within their kata. If we can do that, then we can begin to learn the true purposes of the techniques in our poomsae, and try to make some sense of them.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Purposes of Deep Stances

In the martial art of Taekwondo, the foundation of every single technique begins with our stance. Stances are the foundation upon which everything else is built from. Without proper stances it is impossible to throw a perfect kick or strike. Now, various techniques can be thrown correctly in different stances, but the stance will either slightly alter the way the technique is executed, or be used for a specific reason dictated by the situation at hand.

In our training, we practice some stances that are very deep, or low to the ground. However, when we spar, it seems as though we never use these stances. So what is the purpose of practicing them? We see low stances being used in all of the other aspects of Taekwondo, including basic techniques, breaking, poomsae, and self defense, but the low stances seem to disappear in our sparring.

The answer, I believe, lies in Taekwondo's roots as a martial art. As Taekwondo becomes more and more sportified, less and less people understand the value of deep stances. Shorter stances are much more suitable in sparring as they allow for greater mobility and less telegraphing of techniques. But if you stop looking at Taekwondo as a sport, and instead look at it as a martial art, it becomes much easier to see why lower stances are so important to our art. Here I will go through a list of some of the major purposes of deep stances, namely the horse riding stance, and the front stance.

1. Conditioning-

Usually, the go-to answer as to why deep stances are important is because they condition your legs. Granted this is true, it is absolutely not the main reason why we still continue to practice and utilize deeper stances. There are countless other ways to condition our legs that are much more effective than sitting in a horse riding stance. Even so, it does remain true that we do build strength and endurance in our legs while practicing our techniques in deep stances. Therefore, even though this is not really why we practice deeper stances, it is a good secondary benefit of this training.

2. Explosive Linear Movement-

Deeper stances allow for explosive movements going forward and backward. By bending your knees and lowering yourself, you can compare this to the coiling of a spring. Low stances allow for fast long-range attacks, as well as the ability to quickly move out of range of an opponents attack. Even in sport sparring, you see athletes occasionally dip down into a variation of a low side stance, usually in order to set up an attack, or allowing them to spring back and execute a counter-attack if their opponent strikes first.

3. Generation of Power-

Another one of the most common explanations for the importance of deep stances is that they help to generate power in our strikes. Stances such as the front stance give us a strong base from which to execute strikes because of the balance and low center of gravity the stance requires. One is very well-connected to the ground, which is essential to be able to generate maximum power through the hips and focused through your weapon of choice.

4. Transitional Movements-

When we think about our stances, they look to be very static in nature. However, stances are meant to be dynamic. One is not going to succeed in combat by standing in a static traditional stance. A lot of our low stances are used while transitioning from one stance to another, like the horse riding stance. When moving in combat, the horse riding will be used when moving from one stance to another as it gives the martial artist a well-balanced base to move from and into another stance.

5. Explosive Jumps and/or Kicks-

Just as lower stances provide a Taekwondoin with explosive movement when executing strikes, they also allow for explosive kicks and jumps as well. The concept of the spring is the same, and powerful and fast kicks can be delivered more efficiently from a lower stance. Also, they allow for less telegraphing of jumping kicks, as your body will already be in the position needed to spring up and execute a jumping technique.

6. Avoid Takedowns-

 In arts that are mainly striking-based, like Taekwondo, it is important to make sure you don't end up on the ground. Using deeper stances allows you to defend better against being taken to the ground.

7. Finishing Throws/Joint Locks-

Lower stances are often used at the completion of a throw or joint locking technique. Due to the strong base of gravity, they allow us the maximum effectiveness in throwing/ grappling techniques. Also, being lower to the ground at the completion of a throw or joint lock allows for a quicker follow-on technique if necessary in the particular situation, such as an arresting technique or finishing strike.

As you can see, lower/deeper stances are absolutely necessary in Taekwondo, especially when training in the art for martial purposes. Most Taekwondo athletes may not understand, need, or appreciate these stances, but they remain to be largely practiced because grandmasters continue to see just how important they are to the overall style, and more importantly, martial art, of Taekwondo.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chambering Blocks

One of the oddest, and most misunderstood aspects of Taekwondo has to be the chambering of blocks. When looking at this practice, it seems absolutely counterproductive to the purpose of the technique, which is to block an assailants attack. Yet, chambers for our blocks remains unquestioned by most martial arts practitioners and most are completely fine with the movement because, "that's just the way it's always done." However, when sparring or practicing reality-based training, none of these practitioners execute blocks with chambers, they simply block the technique. It would be impossible for anybody to react to an attack and have enough time to both chamber their block, and actually block the attack. So if we never actually chamber our blocks before executing them in a real situation, then why train them that way?

The reason why we all line up in class and execute our blocks with big chambers is simply because that is what our teacher tells us to do. And the reason he tells us to do it is because that is what he was told to do when he was in our spot. And nobody ever seems to have an explanation for chambers other than, "it makes your blocks more powerful." However, this reason is simply wrong.

Chambers for our blocks are done for several reasons. The first reason, which is why we practice chambering blocks in the first place, is due to Okinawan kata. Because the movements in kata were replaced by labeled techniques, each movement was removed from a specific sequence in the kata, and practiced on its own, as a single technique. Although we are only intending to practice what we perceive to be a blocking technique, we are actually practicing multiple techniques that were taken from kata, and are now being practiced completely out of context.

In kata, it is true that many of the techniques generally taught as "blocks" are actually not really blocks. Although there may be a blocking technique of some sort somewhere within the chamber of the block, the movement we believe to be the actual block is most likely not so. When looking specifically at "blocks" in kata, it is important to note turning sequences. At any point within a kata, a turn may be executed for two reasons. One, the turn is used to keep the kata within a small area, or two, the turn is used to show a grappling technique. Using the motions of the "block" along with a turn, one will often begin to discover grappling technique against numerous assaults.

Another thing to note about blocks occurring in forms is the sequences that end in blocks. In the old Taekwondo poomsae palgwe il jang, the first sequence of the form is to turn left executing a low block, then step forward and execute an inward middle block. And then the sequence is repeated to the other side. Now why in the hell would someone block two techniques and then simply turn away? This is because blocks can also be strikes as well. If a sequence in a form ends with a block, try and visualize this technique as an offensive move, because it was most likely intended to be a strike.

Let's now look at blocks not in the context of forms. There are three basic movements when executing a "block." The first movement is the initial chamber, when you are supposedly preparing to execute the block. The second and third movements happen simultaneously, those being the actual blocking technique coming from the chamber, and your other hand pulling to the side of your body at belt level.

Now instead of looking at the technique from this perspective, let's try another. For this example, try and visualize a traditionally executed low block, stepping into front stance, as we have all practiced a gazillion times. However, visualize the hand that chambers high towards your ear as being open and blocking an incoming punch using the chambering movement. The other hand simultaneously comes across your body, preparing to grab your opponents arm right after you executed the block. Now, visualize the actual "blocking" motion from the chamber: The hand that is pulled into your side has now seized your opponents arm and is pulling it in towards your side in order to off balance him. At the same time, you are stepping into your deep front stance in order to have a strong, offensive movement with strong stability and balance. At this time, you are executing the "low block" straight to your opponents groin.

Within this one simple movement which we have been practicing since white belt, contains an entire self defense sequence. This thought process can be utilized for all of your traditional blocks and one would be able to discover a multitude of brutal self defense techniques contained in their "blocks." And as I said earlier, try and study the movements of the blocking techniques as they are performed with turns, such as with our kata/poomsae. If you already have some grappling experience it should be easier to notice similarities in the movements of some blocks to various joint locking and throwing techniques when done with a turn.

These are some basic concepts one should consider in order to discover a deeper meaning of both why blocks are executed with chambers, and what the true applications behind the motions are.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bunkai in Taekwondo? Part 2

Now lets shift our focus onto the Taekwondo side of things. Although there is a lot of evidence pointing towards Funakoshi not teaching applications from his kata, this is not something that can be stated as fact. The biggest argument one would have to make to support the idea that Funakoshi did actually teach applications from kata would have to be his early writings. There are clear applications given for movements in the kata, as well as several throwing techniques being displayed, with references about where these techniques could be found in the kata. However, just because Funakoshi was writing about applications in kata, does not mean he was actively teaching them in the dojo. In addition, it is evident that as Funakoshi's writing progressed through the years, he included fewer and fewer applications in his texts in regards to kata, meaning any emphasis he may have placed on them in his early days of teaching most likely would have diminished as the years went on.

If one is determined enough to look into Taekwondo history beyond the commonly taught history that states Taekwondo is a 2,000 year old native Korean martial art, it does not take long to find out that the style is mostly of Japanese origin. However, just as many people are satisfied with believing Taekwondo is an ancient art native to Korea, many who look past this become satisfied with believing that it is simply a Korean version of Shotokan Karate as well. But this is also not true. In fact, Taekwondo's roots are much broader.

It is known that some of the original Taekwondo masters were students of Funakoshi. In fact, they were some of his first students, and practiced the art before it became known as, or, even resembled modern Shotokan, and were some of his highest ranking students. In regards to bunkai, if Funakoshi was teaching it, it would have been during his early days teaching, as evidenced by his writing. If he did not, early Taekwondo masters would have been taught the basic, block, kick, punch method of kata. Although this was probably the way it was mostly trained, I believe the concept of bunkai would have been at least mentioned, even if no actual applications were even taught.

Nevertheless, the experience of early Taekwondo masters did not stop at Funakoshi. In fact, the Korean artists who eventually came together to create Taekwondo also had extensive training in both Shudokan Karate under its founder, Toyama Kanken, and Shito-ryu Karate under its founder, Kenwa Mabuni. In addition, several also had extensive training in Chinese martial arts, and a couple claim to have trained in the native Korean art of Taekkyon. So as you can see, Taekwondo is not at all just Korean Shotokan Karate. The founders of Taekwondo had much broader training and knowledge than most give them credit. With their experience in Karate, added with years of training in Chinese martial arts and possibly even Taekkyon, one cannot say the men who founded Taekwondo were under-qualified.

Looking at the qualifications of the Taekwondo pioneers, it is highly unlikely that none of them were introduced to the concept of bunkai, or taught some applications from their kata. Even if Funakoshi did not introduce this concept to them, it is much more probable that Mabuni or Kanken would have. Although it is probably safe to assume that some of the pioneers did know something about bunkai, it is much more difficult to know if they in fact taught this concept in their own dojangs back in Korea.

From reading my own grandmasters book, Taekwondo Spirit and Practice, by Richard Chun, he describes training at the Moo Duk Kwan to be very strict. He trained at the Moo Duk Kwan Institute in Seoul under Master Chong Soo Hong. He describes training to be very formal, and with out much instruction at all. Master Hong did not explain things to them in depth. Instead, he would tell them what they were to practice, and the students pretty much had to figure things out themselves. Also, no questions were ever asked of the master, as this was seen as highly disrespectful. While he does mention drilling poomsae a lot, it is probably safe to assume that there were no explanations of the techniques given.

Assuming that other kwans trained in similar fashion, we should turn our focus towards the unification movement, and the creation of the palgwe, taegeuk, and yudanja poomsae. Even though the concept of bunkai, or even specific applications themselves, may have been known by the Korean masters, the purpose of forms training probably would have closely resembled that of Shotokan Karate. Dojangs were very formal and personal relationships between master and students were unlikely. It is much more likely that poomsae were trained for perfecting basic techniques, and physical conditioning.

If this idea is correct, then upon the unification of the kwans, the new poomsae they were to create would most likely be intended for the same purposes; perfecting basic techniques, and physical conditioning. This idea is also supported by most Taekwondo books in regards to defining poomsae practice. The Koreans also added in concepts of traditional Asian philosophy to their poomsae. As we all know, the palgwe poomsae did not last long, for a few supposed reasons. One being that they still looked too Japanese, and another reason being that there were no Ji Do Kwan or Moo Duk Kwan representatives present during the creation of those forms. With the new taegeuk and new Koryo poomsae, we get forms that look very different from Karate kata, and traditional Korean philosophy wound into the practice of forms.

So with the creation of these new poomsae, it is obvious that forms designed by the Koreans were made to teach basic techniques as well as to condition the practitioner. However, many people have stated that because there are hidden application in kata, they must be in poomsae as well. First of all, we must understand the techniques were not 'hidden' in kata, but rather lost, or just failed to be transmitted. But just because the meanings may have been lost, the movements are there, and many people work diligently to reverse engineer kata and try to rediscover what the kata was originally meant to teach. Because kata have these 'lost' techniques, and many of the same techniques that are in Karate kata are also in Korean poomsae, wouldn't that mean that the applications exist in poomsae as well?

In kata, as was originally taught, individual movements were quite useless, while sequences of movements transmitted the true applications. The way I look at kata is like a sentence: In a sentence, words are specifically placed where they are in order for the statement to make sense and transmit a meaning. Without the words being in their specific order, the sentence simply becomes jibberish. In poomsae, even though the same words (techniques) are used, they are not in the same order, and therefore, the meaning behind the sentence is lost. However, just because the original message trying to be passed along through the sequences in the kata is lost, does not mean there isn't anything else that can be learned.

Although I do not believe the founders of the poomsae purposely designed poomsae with deeper applications in mind, the techniques and applications used in Karate kata are still applicable if used in Taekwondo forms. Teaching forms with applications and transmitting bunkai was something done in Okinawan Karate. But for the Japanese and Koreans, using forms as a way to drill basic techniques and physically condition your students, was the new, popular method of training them at the time. Taekwondo masters had no interest in teaching TKD as the Okinawans had, with only very small groups of well-trusted and mature students. They were interested in teaching Taekwondo under the Japanese, and new Okinawan models of teaching, which was to teach to the masses. Therefore, applications behind the Kukki poomsae were not really even taken into consideration when the forms were being produced. Instead, I believe the masters were looking for logical ways to show technical progression through the forms by adding increasingly complex techniques as the student progressed in their Taekwondo training. In addition, they took into account traditional Asian philosophy and connected these concepts to the forms, giving the student a philosophical element or feeling to focus on when performing poomsae.

 The Kukkiwon textbook does make mention of finding out the practicability of the poomsae. Also, Grandmaster Kyu Hyung Lee, one of the foremost experts on poomsae, once stated that poomsae is meant purely for combat. So once again, some people argue that there then must be practical self defense techniques in the forms. And the answer is yes, there are. But, they are not hidden or lost at all. Rather, many movements in poomsae are simply misunderstood.

Can you use the concept of bunkai in your Taekwondo poomsae and come up with alternate applications to the techniques? Yes of course. They are your poomsae and are there to help you become a better Taekwondo practitioner. Though not originally designed this way, you still may learn a great deal from your forms, that they were not even intended to teach you. The Kukkiwon textbook states in regards to poomsae practice, "One must adapt what he has learned to his practical use, finding out the practicability." Also,  "One must evaluate his findings about the effectiveness of what he has learned, comparing with his or her bodily structure, speed, strength, impulsive power, point of emphasis in training etc., and moderate the techniques into his own style." If your "point of emphasis in training" is "adapt[ing] what [you have] learned into practical use," then you are free to play with the poomsae and use it in any way you choose.

To see some of this "playing with poomsae," check out the Taegeuk Cipher, by Simon John O'Neill.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Bunkai in Taekwondo?

Bunkai, or the practice of finding practical applications in kata, is something practiced by many serious Karateka. Interest in bunkai is something that has been re-emerging in recent times in the Karate world, and in effect, this interest is creeping over to the Taekwondo world as well. And although it is almost certain that Karate kata contains 'hidden', or 'lost' meanings, does the same apply to Taekwondo poomsae?

Seeing how poomsae, and Taekwondo itself, was born almost exclusively from Karate, it is sometimes argued that the idea of bunkai is therefore applicable to Taekwondo poomsae. However, this requires much further study.

To begin, we must look at the kata that were used as the basis for modern Taekwondo poomsae, the pinan kata. These forms were created in the early 1900's by Anko Itosu, believed to be based on two Chinese forms called Channan and Kusanku. The term 'Karate' was not used at this time, and Itosu taught what was called 'To-de'. During this period, the practice of To-de was done in a much more personal manner, with a master teaching only a handful of students. In addition, a master would usually only know between two and four kata, but he would have a great depth of knowledge of them. This knowledge would only be passed along to his most trusted students.

Kata were studied for the purpose of practical application. There was no other reason. That a master would know only a small number of kata is supportive of the idea that there was a great deal of knowledge to be learned from each kata. In fact, Choki Motobu wrote, "The Naihanchi, Passai, Chinto and Rohai styles are not left in China today and only remain in Okinawa as active martial arts." Using Motobu's description of these kata as "martial arts," it is arguable that each kata was actually an entire fighting system in itself! Although a kata obviously did not contain every single technique of a fighting style, it would have taught the major concepts of the style; the ones the creator of the kata would have found to be most important to the understanding of the overall martial art.

In 1901, Itosu successfully introduced Karate to the Okinawan school system as a part of physical fitness education. He continued to teach kata, but because his students were of young age, he left out the applications of the forms, instead using them only as physical fitness tools. In order to teach large classes, he also began to label the techniques in the kata. It is much easier to yell, "Turn, low block. Step forward and punch!" to teach the kata to a large class rather than to try and teach the motion of the techniques.

This practice of giving techniques specific names shrouded the original applications of the kata even further. Forms were originally taught without labeled techniques, and instead, the master taught his students the motions of the techniques, and not labeled techniques, which made it much easier to understand the idea that there were applications behind them. By giving each motion a specific name, students had no need to study the forms in any sort of depth, because they were simply handed applications, although these were not the true applications that the creators of the forms were trying to pass along. The applications now being taught were simply blocks, kicks, and punches. Although not the original intention of the founders, they were applications nonetheless, and were accepted at face value by the young karateka, requiring no further study. Although this became the mainstream way of teaching kata, the old way of passing on kata, and bunkai, from master to trusted and mature students, did survive in Okinawa as well.

One of Itosu's students, Gichin Funakoshi, would eventually bring Karate to mainland Japan. He, for many reasons, continued with the method of teaching kata and Karate, as developed by Itosu. This meant that applications for kata were more or less left behind. Many people argue that Funakoshi did not even know applications to the kata, and any knowledge that he did have, was minimal at best. This, in my opinion, is not true. I believe Funakoshi knew and understood kata better than most give him credit for. One of the reasons I believe this is due to Funakoshi's training with both Itosu and Anko Asato, another well-respected Okinawan Karate master. Funakoshi stated that he spent ten years studying just the naihanchi/tekki kata. After a decade of studying just this kata, I find it hard to believe that he did not have a deep understanding of this form, including its practical applications. Other examples of Funakoshi's deep knowledge of kata can be found in his writings, especially his earlier books.

So with this in mind, the question becomes, "Did Funakoshi actually teach the applications that he knew?" This question is very difficult to answer, and looking at modern Shotokan Karate schools would lead you to believe that, no, applications were not really touched upon by Funakoshi. Shotokan kata tend to look quite different than the Okinawan performances of the same form and it seems as though kata are practiced for reasons that do not include learning practical self defense applications. However, Shotokan Karate as it is taught today is vastly different than what Funakoshi was teaching when he first came to mainland Japan, and this can also be seen in the progression of his books throughout the years.

So first we must question, why would Funakoshi not teach applications of the kata if he did indeed know some, and had an obvious understanding of bunkai? A reason that may or may not hold merit is the idea that being an Okinawan, Funakoshi might have had an ill perception of the Japanese, due to their invasion of his homeland and subsequent poor treatment of the Okinawan people. If this was true, he most likely would have withheld Karate's secrets from the Japanese. This being said, and knowing that a few Taekwondo originators were first generation students under Gichin Funakoshi and his son Gigo, it should be mentioned that Okinawans would not have had any negative thoughts towards the Koreans. So it may be possible that even if Funakoshi did withhold some important teachings from the Japanese, he may have not done so with his Korean students.

Nevertheless, another possible reason Funakoshi might not have taught bunkai was due to other martial arts styles already being practiced in Japan. Many Karate practitioners that study bunkai often translate the movements in their kata to actually contain throws and joint locks. Being that Jujutsu and Judo were already well-rooted in Japanese society, throwing and joint locking techniques were well covered. Therefore, the Japanese people would have been much more interested in the striking techniques of Karate, leaving the true applications of kata to be unnecessary.

A further reason why Funakoshi may have left applications out of kata was due to his purpose for teaching Karate. Gichin did not go to Japan simply by chance, but rather, was asked by the Japanese Ministry of Education to teach Karate as a part of the physical education system. Like Itosu, his Karate was to be taught as a form of exercise, and did not require, nor would it have been recommended, that potentially lethal applications from the forms be taught. Even if he did wish to teach these applications, he would most likely have done so only to his most senior, or trusted students. However, seeing as Funakoshi taught Karate at Japanese universities, he would only have had his students for a short time, until they graduated from the university. As we all know, a degree takes an average of four to five years to obtain, barely enough time for Funakoshi to train them to even a basic level of proficiency. It is likely that by the time students had the basics down pat, they were graduating from the university. This did not give Funakoshi the time to teach the applications of kata to a student. Remember, Funakoshi spent ten years learning a single kata. In Japan, he would have been teaching his students numerous forms in only the short time they were studying at the university. There was not nearly enough time to teach them the intricacies of kata, nor did he have enough time to form a relationship of deep trust to which he would have felt comfortable transmitting these lethal techniques to any of his students. Therefore, it would seem much more likely that Funakoshi would have taught Karate as Japan wanted him to; as a form of exercise and character-building. Not soon after Karate became rooted in Japan, did the focus shift to promoting Karate as a sport, like had happened with Judo, even further decreasing the need to teach bunkai.

To be continued...

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Thoughts on Poomsae and Kata

Forms practice has always been an important aspect in Korean and Japanese/Okinawan martial arts. Looking at both Korean poomsae and Japanese kata, one might argue that they are the same thing, only with different arrangements and sequences of techniques being used. While this may be true, it could also be argued that poomsae and kata are actually very different from each other.

In order to begin this discussion, we must first look at how both kata and poomsae are defined by those who practice them. Shoshin Nagamine defines kata as, "a systematically organized series of defensive and offensive techniques performed in a sequence against one or more imaginary opponents, and given a symmetrical, linear pattern."

Masatoshi Nakayama further explains that there are two types of kata. There are simple kata, which a karateka can use to, "build up his physique, tempering his bones, and forging strong muscles." The other group of kata are, "appropriate for the acquisition of fast reflexes and quick movements." He goes on to explain that kata are used for exercise, and contain everything needed to exercise the whole body. Also, a karateka can learn self defense techniques through the practice of kata.

Shifting our focus to Korean poomsae, the Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo Federation websites state, "poomsae is the style of conduct which expresses directly or indirectly mental and physical refinements as well as the principles of offense and defense resulting from cultivation of Taekwondo spirit and techniques."

Grandmaster Rhin Moon Richard Chun writes, "The forms were designed to provide a means of practicing defensive and offensive techniques in a series of continuous movements. They were intended to train students to defend themselves against more than one opponent and to fight in any direction for as long as necessary without tiring." He goes on to say that they are important for increasing accuracy, coordination, speed, power, endurance, and balance.

Although the basic definitions of kata and poomsae have been given, the importance of these practices to the Karateka or Taekwondoin has not yet been addressed. Just how essential are kata and poomsae to their overall martial arts styles?

It is often written that kata is indeed the essence of Karate. Without the practice of kata, there is no Karate. In Taekwondo, the same can be said about the importance of poomsae. Grandmaster Chun once wrote, "without forms there is no Taekwondo."

So it is obvious that both kata and poomsae are absolutely essential to the overall practice of their respective arts. If we look at the explanations of kata and poomsae already stated above, we can see that in their most basic definitions, they seem to serve very similar purposes. Practicing sequences of offensive and defensive techniques, self defense, developing speed, strength, endurance, coordination, etc. are addressed by both Karate and Taekwondo masters as some of the benefits of practicing forms.

But are forms really practiced just for learning offensive and defensive sequences? Can't you teach self defense without forms? I'm sure coordination and endurance can be trained just fine without the practice of poomsae/kata. So although a student may certainly receive all of these benefits through the practice of poomsae/kata, there are much better ways in which to develop these attributes. So then what is the real reason for practicing forms?

Answering this question is where we start to see some real differences in how forms are practiced in Karate and in Taekwondo. However, we can not simply say that Taekwondo practices forms one way, and Karate another. There will absolutely be some overlap of how forms are trained in different styles of martial arts due to the freedom an instructor has to teach how he/she pleases. An instructor can choose the level of emphasis he wants to place on forms practice as well as their purpose in the overall training regimen. Also, limited knowledge on the part of an instructor could also determine the way he views, and therefore teaches, forms.

When looking at the Taegeuk and yudanja poomsae, as required by the Kukkiwon for promotion, the symbolism and philosophy behind the forms are at the forefront of the practitioners true understanding of poomsae. Although the physical techniques themselves are important, the forms need to be studied and understood at a deeper level than what is merely seen on the surface. The philosophy behind the forms cannot be discovered simply though practice, but must be taught by a qualified instructor. The student must learn the underlying philosophy behind the poomsae he is practicing, and try and capture that philosophical essence through the performance of their poomsae.

When looking at the practice of kata, it seems as though serious practitioners of Karate also look below the surface, past the basic benefits that can be gained through practicing forms. However, there is no underlying philosophy steeped in traditional Asian culture like in Taekwondo poomsae. Instead, Karateka look for the realistic applications of the techniques being taught in the kata. Hironori Otsuka once wrote, "It is obvious that these kata must be trained and practiced sufficiently, but one must not be 'stuck' in them. One must withdraw from the kata to produce forms with no limits or else it becomes useless. It is important to alter the form of the trained kata without hesitation to produce countless other forms of training. Essentially, it is a habit - created over long periods of training. Because it is a habit, it comes to life with no hesitation - by the subconscious mind."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

My Introduction to the Martial Arts Part 4

Returning to school for my senior year, I was no longer training with Master Lim. I had left his school after my six month contract was up, simply for monetary reasons. To add to my misfortune, my original school closed at the beginning of the school year as well, due to some personal hardships in my instructors life. However, a fellow black belt of mine, the same one who I went to Mississippi with back in 2008, decided he would run the school.

Although he had little experience as an instructor, he kept the school alive. I hated being away at college because I wanted to help him with the school. I felt helpless. However, I was at the dojang every time I had a break from school, just like I had always done. The school hung on for survival for another year, but ultimately, was forced to close.

I was extremely disappointed and I wish I could have done more for my school. I was one of the senior black belts and I was unable to help. This was a very low point for me because the dojang had been my home away from home since I was a young teenager. The people there had become my family. I lost my mother to cancer during my sophomore year of college and my dojang was my biggest source of support for me during that difficult time. And now they were gone...

Finishing up my senior year, I had continued to practice Taekwondo on my own, especially my poomsae. While poomsae training was not at the forefront of my interest while I was in the dojang, it became something I loved to do while I was at college my senior year. I would drive to the park during my free time and climb through the woods to a clearing I had learned about during some of my ROTC training, and I would practice my poomsae there. I began to research and read a lot about poomsae, and today I am fascinated by it. Even though I was not able to train at a Taekwondo school during this time of my life, I feel as though I became a better Taekwondo practitioner because I was forced to look at some of the aspects of my training I had somewhat neglected, or at least misunderstood, all the years I was in the dojang.

In addition, I once again furthered my martial arts knowledge though my friend Brian. He became interested in Silat and came into contact with Maul Mornie, a well-respected and outstanding practitioner of Silat Suffian Bela Diri. Thanks to Brian, I was able to attend two seminars in Silat. One was hosted by one of Maul's students, and the other by Maul himself. The art of Silat is absolutely fascinating and extremely different from Taekwondo. I loved it and would definitely seize the opportunity to train with Maul if I ever have another chance.

Only a short time after training with Maul, I found an opportunity to train under the head Grandmaster of the Taekwondo association I belong to, Grandmaster Rhin Moon Richard Chun. Being in possession of all of his book and longing to train with him, this was an opportunity I was not going to pass up. The event was held at Warwick Town Hall in Warwick, NY by the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, led by Master Doug Cook. The seminar was outstanding and I was honored to finally meet a Taekwondo legend in Grandmaster Chun, and one of his senior students and very well-respected master, especially in the traditional Taekwondo community, Doug Cook, of whom I own many of his books as well.

Another important person in my life, who helped to mold me into the martial artist I am today is Louis Balestrieri. A retired NYPD detective and a black belt holder in both Taekwondo and Judo, he is simply the real deal. You will never meet a more humble or kindhearted person than Louie B. He is the co-founder of the Ultimate Warrior Training System (UWT), and what I would consider to be an expert in firearm removal techniques. I had the pleasure of training with him at a couple of seminars in his firearm removal techniques, and I am very thankful that he took the time to take me under his wing and pass his knowledge onto me. It is with great pleasure that I still remain in contact with Lou on a frequent basis and I hope that does not change.

Upon graduating college, I came upon an opportunity to teach at a new gym that just opened up on Long Island. I immediately contacted the gym owner who had me come in for an interview. He was a Marine, so he immediately took a liking to me, knowing I was a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Army. His partner also took a liking to me because he is from Poland, and I am of Polish descent, and very proud of my heritage. This was a good start. I taught three classes that day while they observed. I was hired on the spot.

This gym was not just a Taekwondo school. In fact, they specialized in Muay Thai, a martial art I had some experience with from when I was younger. That summer I spent eight hours per day, six days per week at the gym. I opened the gym, cleaned the gym, did all of the administrative work, answered the phones, signed up prospective students, taught three to four classes per day, and then trained in Muay Thai after I was done teaching. This was the life! Or so I thought...

While I did enjoy teaching Taekwondo, I was forced to teach it in a way I did not want to. Taekwondo was mostly for the kids, while the vast majority of adult students trained in Muay Thai instead. I was teaching under the guidance of a 5th degree black belt, and another instructor who was a competitor for the Egyptian national team. As you can probably guess, the Taekwondo training was very sport-oriented. Not something I was used to.

I did not completely agree with the way I had to train my students, but it wasn't my school, and therefor not up to me. I did my job the best I could and tried to keep an open mind. Another instructor, also an Egyptian competitor, who I came to like, even offered to train me. So whenever he came in, instead of doing Muay Thai, I would train Taekwondo with him. And although it was not the Taekwondo I was used to, I certainly learned a lot from him and my kicking skills improved a lot.

In addition to my kicking skills improving, my overall ability as a martial artist was improving. I was teaching and training at one of New Yorks premier gyms, Sitan Gym. The head instructor of the Long Island branch, Eddie Cuello, where I trained and taught, was an outstanding trainer. The head instructor of the school in Astoria is simply a legend. His name is Aziz Nabih and in addition to being a 5th degree Taekwondo black belt, he is one of the most well-respected Muay Thai trainers in the country. He and Eddie offered me an opportunity to work for them doing something I love, and they trained me as well, making me a much more well rounded martial artist. In fact, Sitan Gym is so well-respected, one of the most famous Thai trainers, Monlit Sitpodang, travelled from Thailand to train our students, including me. It is not every day that you get to train with people of this caliber. I am extremely thankful for Eddie and Aziz being so kind to me and I wish them all the best with their gyms.

Being in the gym eight hours per day, I certainly had plenty of free time to myself. I was constantly practicing my poomsae and working on the heavy bags. After the seminar held by Grandmaster Chun, I had remained in touch with him and eventually spoke to him of my concerns about my martial arts future. It still amazes me at how accommodating Grandmaster Chun is and how willing he is to make time for and help every single one of his students. I have his number in my phone and he has told me time and time again that I can call him whenever I want, if I ever have a question about anything or simply to talk. This is why I love being a part of his association; because he is a true example about what it means to be a Grandmaster. For his help and the time he has taken to help me, I am very grateful.

He had heard that the school I started my training in had closed, but he was pleased that I was continuing to train and now even teach Taekwondo. Listening to my story, and hearing that I was still very active in Taekwondo, receiving instruction by numerous well-respected Taekwondo practitioners, Grandmaster Chun, under the recommendation of my original instructor, promoted me to 3rd degree black belt. Although there was no physical test for this rank, I was honored to accept it.

At the conclusion of the summer, I moved back upstate to my old college town. Unfortunately this meant leaving my job as an instructor and forcing me to put my training on hold once again. However, by chance, I came into contact with a college friend who was interested in starting a Krav Maga club. She was in contact with the owners of Kelevra Krav Maga, Marc Delnicki and Marc Messare, a new and upcoming Krav Maga school in New York. Because of my previous martial arts experience, I was welcome to attend an intensive sixteen hour instructor certification course. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity and travelled to the headquarters school in Saratoga Springs, NY. The course was expremely well put together and even included realistic hijacking scenario training on a real airplane. At the completion of the course I became certified as an associate instructor in Krav Maga.

I am now back on Long Island, but will soon be off to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for the Army Field Artillery Basic Officer Leaders Course (FABOLC) until December of this year. Although this is even more time that I will not be able to train, I am looking forward to getting it out of the way, as this is the last obstacle before I can settle down again without having to constantly be on the move. This means I will once again be able to train full time again, and for this I simply cannot wait!

As of now, this is where I am in my martial arts career.

My Introduction to the Martial Arts Part 3

I continued my training in Taekwondo and Hapkido, training on average five to six days per week. In the summer of my first year in the school, I began assisting my instructor in teaching classes. I rode my bike from my house to the next town over every day and would be at the dojang until it closed. On slower days, some classes would be completely empty, and no students would show up. Of course a disappointment to my instructor, it meant a private lesson for me.

I continued to help my instructor around the school, and never lost my love and passion for training. When I reached brown belt level, a fellow student of mine, Brian, contacted a Hapkido master by the name of J.R. West. As it turns out, this master is the president of a well-respected Korean martial arts organization called the United States Korean Martial Arts Federation (USKMAF) and hosts seminars twice per year at his school in Mississippi. Brian was interested in attending and I was not about to let the opportunity pass me by.

Nevertheless, I found myself on a plane as a seventeen year old brown belt travelling halfway across the country to train in martial arts. I was living the dream. Three full, eight hour days of intense Hapkido training encompassed all of my time that weekend and I came back to my school with a wealth of knowledge to pass along. This seminar was one of the best experiences I have had to date in my martial arts career and I attended another seminar hosted by Master West and the USKMAF in Maryland about a year later.

Fast-forward 9 months since the seminar and  I was ready to test for black belt. Achieving my 1st Dan remains one of the most important accomplishments of my life. Unfortunately, soon after earning my black belt, I was leaving for college. At eighteen years old, I was in my prime, and more motivated than ever to continue my training.

When I got to college, I was immediately bogged down with the large amount of coursework that was not at all reminiscent of high school. That, plus being a cadet in the Army ROTC program left virtually no time for martial arts. However, there was a Judo club on campus and I could not resist. I showed up and talked to one of the main instructors, explaining that I was a black belt in Taekwondo. He was impressed and glad to see that I was interested in Judo. I signed up for the club and received my gi, which was much heavier than my Taekwondo uniform. I also was handed my minty new white belt. Back to being the new guy...

I walked onto the mat and was greeted by an old, Japanese man with a worn out red and white paneled belt. His name was Ogasawara, Nagayasu Sensei. I did not realize that I would have the opportunity to learn Judo from a legend. I trained quite often, and focused more on my martial arts training than in my studies. Unfortunately, it showed. After only four months of training I decided to quit the Judo club. I had learned some great throws and grappling techniques, but I was not learning what I needed to know for school.

Although I wanted to continue training, I knew that my reason for being at school was for earning a degree, not another black belt. I left the Judo club, but continued refining my Judo techniques with the students of my Taekwondo school every time I had the opportunity to return home during a school break.

I continued my Taekwondo training at every opportunity. Thanksgiving break, winter break, spring break, summer break, etc. However, during my Junior year, I could not resist the craving I had to train again full time. Now having my vehicle at college, I looked around the area for martial arts schools. Right in town, I found a Taekwondo school. One afternoon while driving by I decided to stop in and talk to the instructor. His name was Master Jae Y. Lim, a 6th degree Taekwondo black belt. I introduced myself and told him I was interested in training. I informed him that I was a 1st Dan and due to my Kukkiwon credentials, he was happy to allow me to continue training at my current rank.

Training again full time was one of the most rewarding feelings in the world, although quite expensive, especially for a broke college kid. Luckily I had received a national scholarship through ROTC and the military paid me enough so that I was able to afford martial arts classes. After training with Master Lim and refining my skill, my original instructor, Sabumnim John, felt I was ready for my 2nd Dan promotion, which I received in the summer between my junior and senior year of college.

Besides earning my 2nd Dan that summer, I also travelled to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State for the Army's Leadership Development and Assessment Course (LDAC). After a month of rigorous military training, I began another month of training called Cadet Troop Leader Training (CTLT) at Camp Stanley, Republic of Korea. I was so excited because I was travelling to the homeland of Taekwondo.

Unfortunately, while I was in Korea I was mostly doing military training. Because of my short amount of time being there and not being accustomed to the country, I was not allowed to leave post alone. Therefore, whenever I was able to go and explore the country, I had to do so with other military officers. To further my bad luck, I was stationed at one of the smallest posts in Korea, which meant there was not a whole lot to do. Other military posts in the country offered Taekwondo classes to soldiers which were actually quite cheap too. But of course not mine...

A month of living in Korea and I never got to do anything Taekwondo-related. Although I was very disappointed, I still was very thankful I had the opportunity to travel to Korea and become immersed in their culture, even for only a short time. I absolutely plan on returning to the country, though not on the military's terms.

To be continued.

My Introduction to the Martial Arts Part 2

Although I had first learned of Taekwondo while reading an online forum, I was not initially interested at all. In fact, Taekwondo did not seem to have a very good reputation on the internet. However, I had read about a martial art called Hapkido that really sparked my interest.

After watching demonstrations of the art by masters well into their 70's, throwing attackers left and right with ease, I began wondering where my martial arts training would take me. Analyzing my training, which was mostly Muay Thai based, I realized that I probably would not have the physical ability to perform these techniques at an old age. Seeing this old man on Youtube defend himself with ease made me question my training. I knew I was getting good, quality training, but I wondered how I could possibly keep training to old age in what I was currently doing.

Now that I have matured, it is obvious to me that there was plenty to learn at my school beyond the beginners class I was attending, which mostly focused on the fundamentals of striking. However, being young and na├»ve, I wanted to learn this new martial art of Hapkido that I had discovered, which I would be able to use to throw people around with ease well into old age. Another thing that I craved, that my Jeet Kune Do school didn't offer me, was a gi and belt. I thought the gi was so cool but in Jeet Kune Do we simply wore a pair of black gi bottoms and a t-shirt. I knew I was learning martial arts, but I wanted to wear the cool martial arts uniform. As silly as it sounds, this was another thing that drew me to Hapkido.

I did a quick search on the internet and to my delight, there was a school in the next town over. I told my mom that I was displeased with where I was currently training and wanted to try this new school out. She called the place and the instructor invited me to come try out a class.

When I arrived, I felt like I was in a real martial arts school. It was a very nice school and had only been open for a few months. Everyone was in a traditional uniform, which I later discovered was called a dobak. Everybody bowed to one another and answered, "Yes, Sir!" when the instructor gave a command. I loved it.

My first class I remember beginning by bowing to the American and Korean flags, to which there was a large, hand-painted Moo Duk Kwan mural in between. The students, of which there were only around four or five at that point, then bowed to their teacher. We began by stretching for about ten minutes, followed by 100 pushups and 100 situps. Then we went into horse stance, which was very new to me coming from a JKD school, and began our basic striking and blocking techniques. All of these were new to me, as I had never learned any sort of traditional block before.

After practicing the basics, the instructor had us practicing breakfalls and rolls, which once again were completely foreign to me. I was absolutely horrible at rolling. After some time practicing these techniques we moved to weapons disarms. I remember learning how to disarm a person attacking with a baseball bat, and a gun disarm as well. We practiced these until the end of class.

When class ended, I knew this was the school I wanted to train at. I told the instructor I wanted to train very bad, but I still had 2 months remaining on my 6-month contract at my other school, and that I would start right away once that expired. He understood, and my mother and I went on our way. The next day, the Hapkido instructor, named John Mattheos, called my home and talked to my mother. He said he felt bad that I was stuck at my old school due to a contract and offered me free classes for the remaining 2 months of my contract at the JKD school. I was very happy and went in to train that very evening.

My mother and I showed up early and signed some paperwork. Sabumnim John then handed me my new uniform. He gave me a patch which was a mix between the Moo Duk Kwan emblem and the Hapkido eagle perched on the arrow. He explained the meaning of the patch to me and told me to go change.

From then on, this is where my love was. I later found out that Hapkido was only a small part of what we did, but we were actually a Taekwondo school that also taught Hapkido. I was very surprised because I remember what I had read and seen on the internet about Taekwondo, and the school I was now training at seemed very different. My instructor told me that this was because we practiced a traditional form of Taekwondo called Taekwondo Moo Duk Kwan. He explained to me that this was one of the first schools of Taekwondo and predated the new Olympic style of Taekwondo, which came around later and took over the TKD world.

At the time all of this meant very little to me, and all I cared about was training. I didn't care what style it was or what organization we belonged to or what rank my teacher was. All I wanted to do was practice and be the best I could be.

My journey will continue in another blog.

My introduction to the Martial Arts

First off, I want to introduce myself to anybody who may stop in from time to time to read my blog. My name is John, and I am from Long Island, New York. I am a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo and have been training in the martial arts since I was fifteen years old. Taekwondo is absolutely my first love and I plan on continuing my studies in this art for as long as God will allow.

I have had the good fortune of being exposed to many different styles of martial arts, although to varying degrees. While Taekwondo is the style I have been practicing the longest, it is not my first art. I began my martial arts journey in a Jeet Kune Do school, which is quite ironic in that my passion now lies in studying and practicing the traditional martial arts.

I remember as an early teen riding my bike on a warm afternoon and seeing a group of kids around my age. Although I do not like to judge a book by its cover, the group seemed to be thuggish in nature. Although they said nothing to me as I rode by, I began to think to myself: what would I have done if they had attacked me?

I have no idea what provoked this thought but I quickly realized that I honestly had no idea what I would have done had that group of guys instigated a fight. In reality, I, in fact did not even know how to throw a punch.

Fast forward about a year or so and I began to crave a hobby. I had always been involved in sports, and had played hockey for the majority of my life. But I wanted something different to do, not a sport. My experience with the kids while I was riding my bike may have had something to do with my wanting to start taking martial arts classes, but I believe the fact that my cousin was training at a school in town had more to do with it. My other idea of a possible hobby was to start learning to play the guitar.

As I began to ponder what I wanted to dedicate my time to, I weighed what each hobby would have to offer me. As I was thinking, I kept seeing all the practical benefits that martial arts training could offer me and so, I decided that would be my new hobby. I asked my mom if I could start training and she was happy to see I was interested in pursuing a new hobby. My father was fine with the idea but did not think I would stick with it for very long.

Naturally, my mother took me to the school closest in town, which was where my cousin also trained, although he had stopped by now. We talked to the instructor, a man named Sifu Charles Chi, who was very nice and he offered to let me try a class. As soon as the class was over, my mother signed me up right away. From then on I was hooked. Although the instructors wife, who managed the school, recommended training two to three days a week, I was in there every day, six days a week.

My love for hockey remained strong, but my new passion for the martial arts took over. I loved everything about it. Hitting the heavy bag, working on combinations on the focus mitts, shadowboxing. Learning self defense techniques against various grabs, etc. The physical exercise was great, doing pushups, situps, squats, running, etc. I was having the time of my life and getting in great shape too.

My passion for the martial arts did not end when I was done with class either. When I was at home I was on the internet reading and learning as much about martial arts as possible, joining various forums and expanding my knowledge. This is when I first read about the martial art of Taekwondo...

I will continue my story in another blog.