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.
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.
Sunday, June 1, 2014
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.