if there were a graph of my progress in taekwondo, it would look like this line.
every time i start to ramp up, gain ground, feel as if i am really digging in and gaining lung capacity, or ability in one area or another, something takes me out of training for a week for a forced rest. and it’s not as if i lose what i had gained, but i lose momentum. it’s been illness, travel, busted rib, and now, sickness again. i mean, that’s life. i know that. but damn if it isn’t frustrating!
i like having a heavy bag here. i like working out every day at home. i like remaining limber and in touch with my techniques. when i get sick, it just takes me away from my body. and i’m well aware that the body is temporary. and so is fitness, to varying degrees, depending on fate and health and other things. but as much as i love that feeling of being centered and friendly with my body, i hate the feeling of being far away from it, sluggish, weak or otherwise a gap between my spirit and my flesh.
ah, but that’s what happens. and it will pass. and for that, i am grateful and lucky. but right now this bug is working its way through me. in fact, i tested saturday and really i would much rather have stayed in bed. my body felt weak, my mind spacey, my nose and face was all congested. it was not ideal! that was the second test i pushed through where i was not on top of my game. the other was when i gashed my foot open and was bleeding, but gauzed up tight. damn if i wasn’t pretty silly about that injury. but i can get like that with injuries. i don’t like to let them slow me. i even went to sparring class with that injury and not only smacked the wound enough to make me scream and begin bleeding all over again (it was my right foot, my dominant foot for kicking), but got my rib busted! ah, martial arts.
so by now i’ve practiced Taegeuk Yuk Jang enough times to be able to practice it with some degree of balance and power. this means that you have not simply remembered all the moves in the pumsae, but have put them into muscle memory, and so can now practice them with full confidence and refine the shape and execution of them. Yuk Jang was NO JOKE to memorize. hardest yet. just has some moves in there that a) are similar to other parts of the pumsae but not the same, and b) are new stances/moves and confusing to the mind in regards to upper/lower body and right/left dominance. i did some writing on how i thought it would be my favorite pumsae so far, but i was wrong. i really do love some parts of it (last four moves as well as first four) but Taegeuk Sa Jang remains my favorite so far.
however, i do think that will change with my new form, Taegeuk Chil Jang. i know, i know, you are saying i am going to say this about every new form. maybe i will! though the first time i looked forward to a new pumsae was Yuk Jang.
either way, Chil Jang is definitely a step above what i’ve learned so far. and what i’ve really wanted are forms that challenge physical grace, balance and provide some fluidity. these are the same itches that led me to get into breakdancing and gymnastics in earlier years of my life, after all.
for example, the early forms do not require much of any of those things. short stances, boxy moves, uncomplicated strikes and blocks. don’t get me wrong! they can still be hell to memorize for a while. and it’s no accident that you begin with Taegeuk Il Jang and Taegeuk Ee Jang, etc. the idea is to build a foundation upon which you continue to add technique and ability. in time, the pumsae get more and more complicated and challenging. more long/low stances (more strength in the legs needed), harder kicks thrown in, more complicated directionality, new blocks, and so on.
with Chil Jang, we get a slew of new technique. cat stance reminds me of moves i’ve made up on my own in the past, just exercising the strength of my legs. the scissors block is one of those moves you see in pumsae and think “cooool.” (at least i do!) there are other moves in and of themselves that are sweet to observe, but overall, the way the form is put together is sweet. i love watching it, and i really look forward to learning it. i’ve not yet anticipated a pumsae as much as Taegeuk Chil Jang.
sometimes i see lower belts practicing, using kicks above their rank. ones they have not been taught yet, only seen other people at higher ranks throwing. that makes me curious. i guess i’m too orthodoxy to do that. i tend to trust the art form first. as ive written above, what you are taught builds on what you have already learned. for good reason. to try and throw reverse turning kicks before you’ve learned and practiced a side kick is not very sensible. maybe i could compare it to trying to learn to skate backward before you learn to balance on skates at all. or hopping on a unicycle the very first time you try to learn to ride a bike.
i don’t judge them poorly. it’s more like i wonder if i should do what they are doing. to get a leg up (no pun intended!) on my technique, ahead of the curve. but then again, maybe i don’t do that because i’ve had bad experiences with that kind of impatience. i remember when i first started practicing the somewhat difficult reverse turning kick at yellow belt. we called it a reverse spin kick at that dojang, but it’s the same kick. i hadn’t yet got it down, was only just beginning. that one takes a long time to begin to perform well, in my experience. so many facets to get down. then i realized/learned that to close distance, or turn it into an aggressive move rather than a defensive one, you could add a long step before it, giving the kick momentum and bringing it to someone, rather than using it as a way of stopping their forward attack.
well. it’s a kick that involves heavy use of hip flexors and hip stress. it’s also a very powerful kick. when you add power to hip stress and if you aim the force in the wrong direction, what do you get? you get an injury in the deep hip tendons that can take as long as a month to heal.
that was the last time i tried to rush ahead on technique. now i figure it makes more sense to really keep practicing and practicing the techniques assigned to your rank. there are reasons you were taught them and not others. also, it’s quite a different thing to watch someone do a kick and imitate them than it is to be shown the proper way to throw that kick by an experienced teacher. a very different thing. and if you guess and rush ahead, sure, you may be lucky. there may be no problems. but you may injure yourself or cheat yourself on being properly shown. and many bad habits are harder to correct once you’ve begun to ingrain them than they are to avoid if you’ve been shown the right way from the start.
THAT said, another reason i’m very much looking forward to the techniques we’ll be learning as brown belts, aside from Taegeuk Chil Jang, is the Tornado kick. i can’t remember the order or timing of all the kicks i’ve learned so far. but i’m pretty sure this is the first new kick (major kick not variance on a basic kick) introduced since the Spin Hook Kick. that’s extremely exciting! adding on to the major arsenal of kicks. it also means a long time of honing it. and i guess that’s why i trust the order we’re taught what we are taught. it’s not like we still don’t need time to practice spin hooks and reverse turning kicks, but damn, we’ve had enough to focus on. those are hard kicks by themselves. who wants to add to the load before it’s time?
i’ll stop here and admit that in the past two weeks i’ve tried out a Tornado kick or two, just feeling excited about the fact that i am soon to incorporate it into what i know. but even so, it was only once or twice, and it was enough to say “damn. i think i’ll wait to be taught this one.” dunno. i can get pretty purist about my martial art sometimes. i do think there is a real and valid place for innovating on the art. (which is why black belts get to design their own breaking techniques for testing at a certain point.) but it comes after you have a foundation down. not just because you are impatient.
the Tornado (Round) Kick, like the Spin Hook, isn’t seen a whole lot in sparring until those sparring are at least First Dan (black belt). you may see one here or there, but a spinning kick takes a while before it can be executed with confidence, deeply-sown muscle memory, and control. any kick does, but especially spinning kicks. it’s just not a normally performed motion in day to day life.
you’ll hear or read some negative talk about TKD in some quarters (usually by martial artists out to prove the superiority of one style or another, forgetting everything they might know about context and individual talent/adaptation to art) and some of that talk focuses on these kicks. ‘oh they’re not practical’ and you can’t use them in a street fight etc. as if it’s all about street fighting.
but true, master lee teaches us to stick to lower, more basic kicks in street situations. very powerful still, and more reliable, less chance of falling or getting trapped/caught and so on. so unless you are using a finishing move, stick to the basic, lower kicks. and that’s real.
to bring in some nuance, something on human nature: do you know what someone’s natural reaction is when you throw a spinning kick? if they are closing in on you and you launch a reverse turning kick, spin hook, or a tornado kick? their reaction is confusion. you just don’t really know what’s going on. it all happens very fast, you know. before you can figure out what’s happening, you have a foot in your belly, or to your head. when you have control of that kick, even martial artists can be surprised by it. even in the ring. even when they know enough to expect it. that’s just how it works. so that’s part of the beauty of those kicks. they are confusing, they are fast, they are super powerful because why do you spin? it’s a way of adding the power of momentum to your blows while not moving from the basic position you are in; without turning around and backing up twenty feet and running at someone. thus names like “tornado.” (well, that’s mostly because of the spinning motion, but why not call it a corkscrew or spiral kick or something? because of the force!)
NOW. having said all that? that all applies only after a while. only after you’ve practiced that kick so many times you can throw it in a second, keep your balance, keep your orientation, and feel in some unlabeled part of your mind, where it will land in space. (muscle memory). and that is a LOT of practice. that can be up to a year of practice.
this is why it is good to keep a realistic picture of where you are. in reality, even as a high (colored) belt you are a junior fighter. you are a fighter! a real fighter. but in the scheme of having mastery over the art? i do, by now, think of black belt as a beginning. a real and true and competent one. but the word “mastery” is no joke. it’s not “competence,” and it’s not “ability” and it’s not “badassness.” it’s “mastery.” a tall order. so in terms of mastery, you are but a junior fighter still. and keeping that perspective helps you have patience and understand all the work you need to put into these techniques.
i’m glad testing to this point required me to bone up on past techniques, or rather, demonstrate knowledge of many techniques already learned. there is a steepening pitch to what you are expected to know. at one point you are just learning three new 1-steps for testing. and then brown comes along and you need to know 3-steps 1-10.
i’m definitely at the point where a lot of slack fades away. or lenience. you are expected to remember and perform a certain amount of technique in a certain way. well. especially if you have pride in your rank, and want to represent the art and school properly. so maybe a lot of that expectation and pressure is self-originated. but i like that challenge. practicing martial arts is one way of drawing out my very best. if not challenged to rise, you won’t, in many cases and in many arenas.
i was on this thread the other day, just reading. it was hugely negative and i’m convinced now that spending hours reading through twenty pages or more of thread was not a good idea. i couldn’t turn away though, encouraged occasionally by a nuanced, calm-headed remark or bit of wisdom that put things into what felt a truer perspective.
one of the criticisms people were arguing for or against was that 1-steps and 3-steps do not properly teach you to defend against attack. the basic argument was so oversimplified to begin with—you can get that just from the sentence, after all, there are so many ways of “being attacked” and so many situations it could happen in that no one technique or set of techniques could put an airtight “PREPARED” on your forehead.
my thoughts are basically that anyone who expects 1-steps (or any technique or set of techniques) to be an exact blueprint for infallible self-defense is a fool. and no martial art will adequately prepare a fool, aka a non-creative order-taker/test-driller.
here’s the idea. fighting is not instinctual. rather, self-defense and technique is not. if you live in an area where most kids attack by running at you and lowering the head as a battering ram into your belly, this is what you will learn to defend against. might take time. but after a few head butts, you will learn to put up your knee, or step to the side. in any case, their lowering their head and butting you will be ON YOUR MIND and you will be prepared, to a degree, for it to happen. whereas the first time it happens, much like the way a spinning kick can disorient the receiver of one, you might not even realize what’s up until you are winded on your back, or over someone’s shoulder.
completely untrained fighters or people who think the act is abhorrent or who live in ways that they can avoid it or have others fight for them, will have very little to rely on in a fight. if attacked, they will do one of a few things. they will either ball up (shrink and cover their face with arms and hands), run away, or take a few hits, stagger back and then start swinging back; usually at the face, usually with shoulder-powered punches.
1-steps and 3-steps are ways of preparing your mind for someone swinging at you. they are ways of implanting muscle memory. what is muscle memory? it is an action practiced so many times that you can do it without thinking. literally. without any thought. like using fork and knife to cut up and eat food while you talk to someone. (master lee’s example.) at first, using a fork alone is a challenge! in doubt? watch a 2 year old eat. (or watch an adult pick up chopsticks for the first time.) but then, after a few thousand times of doing it, you don’t think of it. it’s an extension of your hands.
so again, there is the time put in. the drills. the large, large number of days spent practicing. this part cannot be separated from the name of any technique. when i say “an [x] kick is devastating,” i mean an [x] kick is devastating once you have the balance, power, and technique woven into your brain and body through many, many, many times practicing. i don’t mean a kick in an illustration in a book. i don’t mean a kick in abstract. i mean that kick as designed to be thrown–which includes mastery.
if you want 1-steps or 3-steps or self-defense moves to be useful and serve their purpose, you have to practice them enough times that you don’t have to think. you can’t go to the dojang a couple times a week, and maybe once a month remember to say “hey, wanna practice our self-defense moves”? that will take 50 years for them to sink in. you need to practice them all the time. at home, if alone, visualize the grabs and react to them. practice only one side of your 1/3-steps, if no partner. and then when you have a chance (arranging for a practice buddy whom you can meet outside of class hours will help, too), grab someone each time to practice when you are at the dojang.
and then, when you have those as memorized with your body as you do a roundhouse kick, they can serve usefully in self-defense. then a punch coming at you, or a hand to quickly grab you won’t stun your mind. you will have programmed in a reaction.
that’s why i warn against grabbing martial artists in surprise behind the back hugs, or related surprises. while they may be a very sweet person, they may also have adequately prepared their training, and have a response that will rise in reaction that involves breaking a wrist, elbow, or rib, etc. i mean, that’s the idea! that this will be their thoughtless reaction. and that would really ruin the happy moment you expected to have by surprising them!
and when the fight, grab, or swing is not exactly what you expected or trained for? that’s where the creativity part comes in. and you can’t get creative until the foundational moves are nailed down below conscious thought and you have extra room to think and innovate on the spot.
to my mind, most of what makes martial arts an amazing thing relies—on beautiful techniques, no doubt about it—but truly, the amazing results rely on amazing quality of the human being itself: to improve, to learn, and to adapt by the simple means of repetition guided by expertise and love. so the key is practice. practice, practice, practice.
it’s a mundane answer. the method is not magic. but the method yields magic.
whew! i had no idea i had so much to write on taekwondo today. it felt good. now. time to make some art and enjoy this tea.