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Thursday, December 17, 2015

How to Train in Korea

Training in Korea has been an incredibly rewarding experience for me, but it took a long time of learning the hard way in order to get to this point.  This post is the resource I wish I had before I went to Korea the first time.  I hope someone finds it valuable.

That time I photobombed Grandmaster Park on the
front page of Taekwondo Times.

Figure out how you are going to get there.

Depending on your country of origin, the visa rules will be different.  For Americans, you can visit for 90 days with only a passport.  This is an expensive trip, so having a job waiting for you can help immensely.  If you are a native English speaker with a 4-year degree, you might be able to get a job teaching English.  If you do, your choices are 1-year contracts or 1-month camps.  There is nothing in between.  Keep in mind, though, that work visas can be tedious to obtain and the rules are always changing.  In some countries (including America) it can take several months to prepare all of the documents. It's not necessary to arrange your job through a recruiter, but it can be very helpful to do so the first time.

I introduced these guys to roleplaying games, riddles, mythology and fables, and
I guess I taught them some English, too.

Figure out where you are going to stay.

If you are traveling to Korea on a work visa, your employer will arrange your lodging.  For tourists, your options are hotels, goshiwons and homestays.  For a short visit, hotels will do just fine, but for longer stays they can be prohibitively expensive.  Goshiwons are miniature dorm rooms.  They are uncomfortable for very long-term stays, but if you are in Korea for only a month or so, this is a very cheap and serviceable way to go.  Homestays involve living with a family who can be a great resource for helping you make the most of your trip.

Know what you want to study.  

Before my first trip to Korea, I was told there was a taekwondo school on every street corner and it would be easy to find a place to train.  While this was a slight exaggeration, there were indeed about a dozen schools within walking distance of where I lived. However, I would not say that it was easy to find a place to train.

The schools that can be found on every street corner tend to cater to children.  While they will eagerly accept an adult student, it is likely to be a much more modern experience than you might expect.  It may be difficult to find one with an instructor who speaks English.  I trained at one of these schools for a year, and while I absolutely love the people I trained with, I can't recommend this option.  Modern taekwondo is a very prolific art--it is available all over the world.  If this is what you want to train, you are likely to get more from the experience at home, where you fluently share a language with your instructor.

The person in this picture who speaks the least English is my instructor.
The person in this picture who speaks the least Korean is me.

For adults who are serious about modern taekwondo, the best instruction is available through universities.  Taekwondo is the national sport of Korea and it is offered at many higher education schools, often as a major and sometimes in English.  Like any college or university back home, expect to go through an admissions process and enroll in the school like any other student.

If you are training in an art other than taekwondo, a university will likely not be an option and you should expect it to be a little harder to find a school.  For obscure arts, simply finding a school and signing up is the best, and perhaps the only, way to go.

Taekyun is one of those arts that is harder to find.

Traditional taekwondo is hard to find.  You will probably need to have a connection before you arrive in Korea.  In my case, I made my first connection by knowing my lineage and style's history.  When my Korean language skills grew to the point that I could surf the Internet in Korean a little bit, I found the correct Korean spelling of Park Chull Hee, who founded the style I learned in America.  I found a website that mentioned his name and had a map.  I couldn't understand anything else on the page and the automatic translators were no help, but I recognized the area in the map.  The next weekend, I took a few hours for a trip to that area and discovered a taekyun school.  It was closed.  But by pure luck, there was someone in the office who could help me.  Long story short, I now train at that taekyun school every chance I get, and they introduced me to Grandmaster Park, who I also train with every chance I get.  Every traditional martial arts connection I've made in Korea has come from them.

Which brings me to...

Have a contact ahead of time.  

Having a contact within your martial art is a huge help for making sure you get to study what you want to study.  Your time in Korea is a finite resource, and you don't want to spend it bumbling around trying to meet the right people.  Preparation is key.

It's also valuable to have a connection for day-to-day issues.  If you don't have an employer or at least a friend in Korea, you probably want to stay at a major hotel where the staff speaks English.  Any number of issues can come up when you're travelling, and having someone who can help you is invaluable.

Don't neglect your language skills.  

Especially if you are staying in Seoul, you can get by using only English.  Don't.

Your instructor probably will not speak a lot of English.  Those who can must still conduct their classes in Korean, translating for you only when time permits.  The more you understand, the more you will get out of your training.  Try asking your instructor for some vocabulary words that will help you understand the class.  Most will appreciate the effort.

Even if you are lucky enough to find an instructor who is fluent in English, I would recommend putting some serious time into learning Korean.  At the very least, learn the Korean alphabet before you arrive.  It's easy and extremely valuable.  Many of the signs are in English if you can just understand the letters.

I often say that I don't speak Korean, but that isn't completely true.  I'm not conversational, but I can make myself understood even in some unusual situations.  "My friend is drunk and lost" is not exactly covered in Level 1 textbooks, but being able to convey that to a security guard who spoke no English turned out to be a useful skill to have.

But besides the usefulness of being able to communicate, the biggest reason to work hard on learning Korean is the doors it will open for you.  Even when I have said completely wrong things, even accidentally offensive things, the people I spoke to recognized that I was making a genuine effort with the language and culture.  Being a foreigner who is willing to do that sets you apart from the tourists and straight-out-of-college expats who are just looking to have fun in a foreign country.  That kind of dedication is rare, and almost always appreciated.

Korean is not an easy language for native English speakers to learn, but there are a number of free resources.  I particularly like Talk To Me in Korean.

Be respectful of the culture.  

Never forget that you are a guest in this country.  This should go without saying, but sadly I've seen westerners behave in ways that made me cringe just being near them.  I've heard those same people complain of how mean and unfriendly Koreans are.  That has never been my experience.

I've found Koreans to be very kind and polite people.  They are incredibly helpful and forgiving of people who can't speak the language in a way no visitor to the United States could expect.  Once I was lost on the outskirts of Seoul.  I asked for directions in a convenience store, and the worker called her English-speaking daughter to help me understand what she was telling me.  They walked me to the bus stop and asked a man there to help me get on the right bus.  That man asked a passenger to help me get off at the right stop.  It became a community project to help the lost foreigner get to the right place.  I can't imagine that happening back home.

And I managed to get where I was going before dark.

Making just a little effort with the culture will go a long way.  Being rude will get you nowhere.  Don't be that guy.

Take notes.  

Especially for a short trip, you have a finite amount of time in Korea, so you want to get as much out of your training time as possible.  On my first stay in Korea, after my class with Grandmaster Park, I would write everything I could remember in a notebook during the bus ride home.  When I got home, I would type it in my martial arts journal.  This was great not only for creating a reference resource, but also for the process of recalling everything I was taught.

I still use my journal to record technical details, but videos are also incredibly helpful. Take videos if and only if your instructor is comfortable with it.  Your instructor might allow you to make a video but ask you to keep it private.  I have a dozen or so such videos that no one besides myself has ever seen, or ever will.  My instructors are trusting me to use it purely as my own reference and not as a representation of them or their style.

There are plenty of cafes where you can write notes after class.  This one has
a travel theme and some really good cappuccino.

Also be prepared for the likelihood that you will not have space to practice between classes.  Especially if you are in Seoul, space is at a premium and your options will be limited.  If you can't practice on your own, it becomes especially important to take notes and review them before the next class.

Be patient.  

It's tempting to think you need to cram in everything as quickly as possible, and you are right.  You need to make the most of your time.  But understand that on your first trip, your instructor doesn't really know you.  Cultivating that relationship takes time.

I've made several trips to Korea to train in taekyun, and each time I was greeted more warmly.  The first time, I was treated like a customer with a genuine interest in martial arts. They gave me a fast and interesting introduction to taekyun.  Most foreigners don't make it back for a second trip, so when I did, they treated me like a dedicated student and started outlining some long-term plans for me to continue my taekyun training.  Upon my third arrival, I was greeted with hugs and the attitude that since I was a regular now, I had better improve my skills considerably.

It's not fair to expect this kind of thing to develop overnight.  Most instructors in any country will respond to dedication, and Korea is no different.  Are you a serious martial artist, or a tourist who trains in martial arts?  It can be hard to tell the difference, so take the time and prove it.  You prove it by never missing a class, by training even when you are tired and jet-lagged, by diligently reviewing, and by keeping up the practice when you're not in Korea.  Serious martial artists know the drill--that's just how they operate.  Be patient and your instructor will see it.

Drink in moderation.

Drinking is part of the culture in Korea, but don't go overboard.  You're here to train, not get wasted.  Besides the negative impact that alcohol has on your physical performance, you've only got so much time in Korea.  Do you really want to spend it drunk and hung over?

A Buddha statue surrounded by "ten thousand Buddhas" at Kuknyeong Temple,
hidden away in the mountains.  You will never get there drunk.

Enjoy the adventure.

Sometimes people ask me for advice about teaching English in Korea.  I always tell them that if they're looking for an adventure, they're going to have a wonderful experience that they'll remember their whole lives, but if they're looking for a job they're going to be miserable.  Traveling or living in any foreign country will have its quirks and annoyances, and the longer you stay the more chance they have to get under your skin.  Nobody goes to Seoul for the crowded subway ride.  They tolerate the crowded subway ride for the adventure at the other end.

If you try to live like you do back home, with a western diet and western habits, it's difficult if not impossible.  Even if you do manage, it will be expensive and frustrating.  Eat your kimchi, try the thing that still looks like it did when it was alive, hang your wet clothes instead of trying to find a dryer, and always remember that what happens in a noraebang stays in a noraebang.

Things you can only do in Korea:  photo op at the Kimchi Museum.

This is a country with thousands of years of history and countless stories to tell.  Seoul exists firmly in the past and in the future--I've never seen any other place where you can be so completely surrounded by the height of technology and the modern world, but turn a corner and see something that has been there for hundreds of years or more.  You can't spend every minute training, so take some time to experience the culture.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Light Contact Means Light Contact

This week I'm stepping away from my usual fare of talking about travel, teaching, and learning, to touch on the topic of levels of contact.

As a color belt, I attended a school that taught both light contact and full contact sparring. The rule sets were completely separate, and while most people preferred to specialize, I just loved sparring and didn't much care what the rules were, as long as I had someone willing to spar me.  I had trouble with that at one point when one of my seniors got kicked in the face by a wild horse and told everyone that the resulting injury was from sparring me.  Which is a lot funnier now than it was then.

I guess that's a compliment?  Thanks to jdj150 for making the image
available for reuse.

I think there's a silent perception among a lot of martial artists that if you ask someone to lighten up their level of contact against you, you'll be seen as a wimp.  People may very well think that about me, but I'm not too proud to say they can think what they want.  I'm an unapologetic stickler for keeping contact light when those are the agreed upon rules. Hitting hard has a time and a place.  Save it for full contact matches.

Foot-induced nap time is also fun.

For me this attitude had its roots in competition.  I loved to compete, but the adult female color belt divisions were not deep.  I'd be envious of the men's divisions that had sizable brackets, when I had to count myself lucky if I got two fights for my entry fee.  My instructor was adamant that I couldn't fight in the men's division, even though sometimes that meant I got sent home with a trophy just for being the only person in my division to show up to the tournament.  I desperately wanted there to be more women competing in sparring.  When I did have opponents, sometimes I had a significant size or experience advantage.  I started to take pride in my very light, accurate taps that were enough to score the point but carried no risk of driving one of my few female opponents from competition.

I remember one tournament in particular.  I was a head taller and two ranks up on my opponent, who had never been to a tournament before.  She was scared to death of me, and said so.  I assured her that she would not get hurt in a light contact match.  I defeated her soundly while keeping my word--light taps only.  I was happy to see her again at another tournament a few months later.  Sure, I could have hit a lot harder and gotten away with it, but if I made it such an unpleasant experience for her, would I have seen her again?  Probably not.  There'd be one less person on the competition circuit and maybe even one less martial arts enthusiast.  Regardless of the score, I wouldn't call that a win.

Sometimes you're on the side that has nothing to prove.

Beyond the desire to make sure I never drove a competitor away from competition, there was a very practical reason for the very light contact.  In competition, I'm not trying to defend myself in a life-and-death situation.  I'm trying to score a point.  Using the minimum level of contact necessary to score that point means that I'll never get penalized for excessive contact.  Sure, I might get away with hitting harder.  I might even get away with hitting a lot harder.  But why bother leaving it up to the judges' discretion?  Those light taps were an efficient way to win.

But the biggest reason I became such a stickler for light contact came about a year later. I was again at a tournament, this time fighting a friend from the same school as myself.  The match was stopped for the tournament organizer to make some announcements, and I was completely turned away from my friend.  When I looked back, she was curled up in a ball on the floor and unresponsive.  That was the end of that match.

It was days later when I finally learned what had happened.  During the match, I kicked her in the head with my regular very light tap.  It would not have affected a healthy person in the slightest, but unbeknownst to her or anyone else, she had cancer.  The doctors told her that if she had been kicked any harder, it probably would have killed her.

As you might imagine, I felt awful that I had hospitalized my friend.  She told me not to carry any guilt.  She said that if not for that head kick, the cancer might have continued silently killing her for a long time before any medical tests were done.  As it was, they caught the cancer late in Stage 1.  If it had progressed to Stage 2 before they caught it, her chances of survival would have been much lower.

She's alive and well today.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Interview with Master Do Kihyun Part 2

Master Do Kihyun is the President of the Kyulyun Taekyun Association and a published author on taekyun.  He has trained in martial arts for over 40 years including taekwondo, kung fu, kendo, karate, aikido, hapkido, and others.  He started taekyun in 1982 and has trained in it continuously ever since.  He has a masters degree in Sports and Leisure and is working toward his PhD.  He now teaches taekyun in Seoul, Korea, at a small school where people (including myself) come from all over the world to train.

Despite his impressive resume, he insists that his most noteworthy accomplishment is having achieved confidence, happiness, and peace of mind through martial arts.  I sat down with Master Do to discuss taekyun and his experiences in the martial arts.

This is Part 2 of a two-part series.  Part 1 of the interview is here.

Martial Journeys:  What prompted you to switch from training in taekwondo to taekyun?

Master Do:  I read in taekwondo books that taekwondo came from taekyun, so I wanted to know what taekyun is.  I wasn't serious, I was just curious.  Fortunately, Master Song lived near my University.  I found him and I started to learn taekyun in 1982.

Martial Journeys:  How did you find him?  Did he run a school?

Master Do:  No, I found his address by luck.  I read about him in a magazine in a shop. The magazine mentioned the general area where he lived, but not the exact address.  So I went there and asked around at the village, "Do you know Master Song?"

Song Deokgi (left) was depicted in taekwondo magazines
well before 1982.

Martial Journeys:  Master Song is very famous in taekyun circles.  What was it like to train with him?

Master Do:  I was happy to learn a new style of martial art.  When I visited my master for the first time, I imagined that since taekyun is an old style martial art, taekyun's movement must be very slow and very graceful with deep stances.  But my teacher taught me that taekyun doesn't have that kind of technique.  When I saw what he showed me, I thought, "What is this?!"  I was very surprised the first time.  I was very happy to learn something so different.  Also, he never said, "practice taekyun."  He would just say, "play taekyun," or "enjoy taekyun."  Having fun was important.  I love that.  Also since he was born in 1893, he could tell me what Korea was like 100 years ago.  I often asked about the Joseon Dynasty, and he told me many things about that time.

A postcard depicting life in the Joseon Dynasty.  Thanks to koreanet for making the
image available for reuse.

Martial Journeys:  What was the most difficult thing about switching to taekyun?

Master Do:  Taekwondo is a very tense martial art with strong, hard movements.  I practiced taekwondo for a long time before starting taekyun, so my body was very tense. My taekyun master taught me soft movements.  He would tell me, "You're too tense. Relax."

Martial Journeys:  Have you ever learned something outside of martial arts that helped you improve at martial arts?

Master Do:  I lived in America from August of 1985 to May of 1988.  When I came back to Korea, my teacher, Master Song, had died.  At that time I had many questions because when I was in America I would demonstrate taekyun, and Americans often asked me, "Why do you move like that?"  I didn't know.  I was just doing it the way my teacher taught me.  I said when I got back to my country I would ask my teacher, but I was too late.  My challenge when I came back to Korea was figuring out how I could understand my movement.  I tried to find movement very similar to taekyun so I learned Korean mask dance.  I also wanted to have beautiful hand techniques so I learned Korean traditional dance.  Mask dance is very dynamic and powerful and Korean dance is beautiful.  I gained the confidence to perform a very beautiful martial art.  I can do very beautiful forms because I learned so much Korean mask dance and Korean traditional dance.  I adapted Korean traditional dance form to Korean martial arts.  My teacher didn't teach me these aesthetic details, but I still want to improve my forms' beauty, and I did it through Korean traditional dance.

Martial Journeys:  What's the most important thing you've learned in martial arts?

Master Do:  I've developed a sound body and sound mind through martial arts.  If you have those things you will be happy.  That's my entire purpose.  If you watch me, I am always very happy and always smiling.  I'm always thinking about how I can be happy. Why do I practice?  I want to be healthy and happy.  It's that simple.  I don't have a complicated philosophy.

Martial Journeys:  What advice do you have for someone who wants to be good at martial arts?

Master Do:  Two things.  First, practice very hard.  Very hard.  Second, you have to study and read a lot of books.  Read martial arts books, philosophical books, art books--anything.  The more knowledge you have, the better you can understand your martial art. So practice very hard and read.

I forgot to ask if reading blogs counts.

Martial Journeys:  How has taekyun changed over time?  How is it different today than in the past?

Master Do:  Taekyun hasn't changed very much, but there are some differences because of two things.  First, people are taller today than they were in the past.  Second, today we have too much information.  We're exposed to other styles of martial arts, so we can introduce various kicks and hand techniques that weren't originally part of taekyun.  This is happening all the time with other styles.  For example, even though similar kicks existed before, taekwondo invented the spin hook kick around 1970.  Now everybody uses it--Japanese martial artists, Chinese martial artists, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan...  Everyone can use it because we've seen it in movies and on the Internet.  In taekyun competition, young students incorporate other techniques to their fighting.  The rules allow it, so taekyun changes as fighters mix in techniques.  It goes both ways.  Taekwondo has incorporated some kicking techniques from taekyun.

Martial Journeys:  What do you think taekyun will be like in the future?

Master Do:  Taekyun techniques are very good, but other martial arts' techniques are just as good, so specific techniques are not important.  I just want to give to the other martial arts the philosophy of practicing for the sake of a sound body and a happy mind.  We practice taekyun not for fighting, but to be happy.  But if I want to be happy, I need the people around me to be happy.  So when I practice martial arts, I want everyone to enjoy themselves and be happy, to achieve a sound body and ultimately a happy community. Technique is not important.  Any style is okay--just choose for yourself which one you like. You asked me why I switched from taekwondo to taekyun.  It's just because I love these techniques!  I was happy, so I switched.  No special reason, no high-level philosophy, just pursuing happiness.

Sweaty, smiling taekyun students.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Interview with Master Do Kihyun Part 1

Master Do Kihyun is the President of the Kyulyun Taekyun Association and a published author on taekyun.  He has trained in martial arts for over 40 years including taekwondo, kung fu, kendo, karate, aikido, hapkido, and others.  He started taekyun in 1982 and has trained in it continuously ever since.  He has a masters degree in Sports and Leisure and is working toward his PhD.  He now teaches taekyun in Seoul, Korea, at a small school where people (including myself) come from all over the world to train.

Despite his impressive resume, he insists that his most noteworthy accomplishment is having achieved confidence, happiness, and peace of mind through martial arts.  I sat down with Master Do to discuss taekyun and his experiences in the martial arts.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series, and will be continued next week.

Interviewer and interviewee.

Martial Journeys:  What is taekyun?

Master Do:  Taekyun is a traditional Korean martial art.  There are many martial arts in Korea but taekyun is the only one the Korean government recognizes as a Korean cultural treasure.  It is also recognized as a UNESCO world cultural heritage.  Other martial arts like Shaolin kung fu, tai chi and muay thai applied, but they were all rejected. Taekyun is the only one.

Martial Journeys:  Why do you think that is, that it's the only one?

Master Do:  This is just my opinion, but I think it's because taekyun has changed less than the other arts.  I think Shaolin kung fu is a very good martial art, but it might be too commercialized.  It is not an exact tradition because it has changed so much.  Tai chi was also changed by the Chinese government.  But taekyun never changed like that and still maintains its traditional form.  During the Japanese Occupation, the Japanese government prohibited taekyun practice.  Only a few people continued to practice taekyun in secret.  After Korea gained its independence, Korean people weren't interested in taekyun.  Since there were so few taekyun practitioners, taekyun couldn't develop.  But it also couldn't change.

Martial Journeys:  Why should someone who practices another martial art be interested in taekyun?

Master Do:  Almost all East Asian martial arts like karate, kung fu, taekwondo and hapkido, are based on Chinese philosophy and Chinese traditional movement.  China is a big country and they have a long history so when cultures collided almost all East Asian martial arts were influenced by Chinese styles.  But taekyun is absolutely uniquely Korean.  It has no horse riding stance and no punches from the waist like most styles do, and taekyun moves according to a unique 3 beat rhythm.  The techniques have a very different flavor compared with other East Asian martial arts.  But it's more than that. Usually Chinese martial arts are very mysterious, Japanese martial arts are very serious, but the Korean martial art of taekyun is just fun.  When you attend my classes, it is not serious or mysterious.  My students are smiling and in good spirits.  That is why I think taekyun is a very good martial art system.  I hope in the future, all the other martial arts will want to change to foster a happy mind, to relax, help each other, and practice to enjoy themselves.

Taekyun students being neither serious nor mysterious.

Martial Journeys:  How old is taekyun?

Master Do:  Nobody knows.  There are historical records from the Joseon Dynasty that depict taekyun, but that's all we know.  Some martial arts have a single founder who created their style, but taekyun developed as a folk activity, so no one knows who originally invented it.  It's possible it didn't even have a founder, and developed as neighboring villages fought each other according to their folk fighting systems.

A historical depiction of traditional Korean martial arts.  

Martial Journeys:  Why is taekyun less popular than it used to be?

Master Do:  During the Japanese Occupation almost all of the taekyun masters died. After Independence Day, Korean people didn't want to learn traditional culture, which had gone out of style.  Major sports like judo and wrestling were popular.  Korea was very quickly modernized and nobody wanted to understand Korean traditional movement.

Martial Journeys:  Why does taekyun include elements of dance?

Master Do:  It's not dance.  Almost all martial arts--not just taekyun--reflect the dance of the culture that created them.  If you watch very carefully, Chinese martial arts are very similar to Chinese dance.  Japanese styles also have a relationship with their national dance system.  It's the same in Africa.  By the same token, taekyun has similarities with Korean mask dance.  The purpose of dance is to express beautiful form, and the purpose of martial arts is to kill.  They have different purposes but they have a similar movement because the people are the same.

Korean mask dance.  Thanks to koreanet for making the image available for reuse.

Martial Journeys:  Which is better for a beginning taekyun student, a dance background or martial arts background?

Master Do:  Either will be helpful but martial arts is better because all martial arts have a common philosophy.  Technique is not important.  The most important thing is to get a sense of how to avoid or how to hit.  It is very difficult.  If I am attacked, I need to be able to avoid the attacking technique, be able to block, and be able to hit.  If someone has a lot of taekwondo fighting experience, it's very helpful.  He already knows how to avoid and how to hit, so just learning taekyun technique is easy.  Of course if his taekwondo practice consists entirely of forms, he won't have that benefit.  But if he develops to a high level of skill in fighting technique and competition, how to avoid and how to hit, he can learn taekyun techniques very quickly.  It's just like if someone is very good at swordplay, he can learn another sword very quickly.

This interview will be concluded in Part 2.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Drill for Very Straight Punches

Even though this trip to Korea wasn't part of the 50 States Challenge, I would be remiss if I didn't come back with a Takeaway Technique for the blog.  

The idea of economy of movement is not a unique one.  In a life-and-death situation, a fraction of a second can make all the difference in the world, so the idea of not wasting any time during your movements is just common sense.  

When Grandmaster Park talked about this, it boiled down to a simple phrase that I have heard from him many times, "Straight is fast."  You can get very academic about proving that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but really it just means your punch is faster when it goes directly to its target.  

Eh... I just can't bring myself to crack a joke about Grandmaster Park.

He liked to draw an analogy to Wild West shootouts.  He said that gunfighters had to learn to draw their weapons very quickly in order to survive, and they did so by very straight direct movements.  The shootouts from movies are a creative interpretation of historical fact, but drawing a weapon as quickly as possible has obvious benefits, and not just in the Old West.  So for the sake of Grandmaster Park's explanation, imagine the quick draw from the stereotypical Western shootout, which is convenient for its simplicity.  The gun was likely holstered on the hip (not the leg) of the shooting hand.  The very fast movement to remove the gun and shoot from the hip is intended to optimize speed.  Presumably those who weren't as fast as their enemies died and were unable to pass on their technique.  The surviving technique involves a very fast, very short movement with the elbow tucked in, which you might notice, does not look terribly different from a punch from the hip.

The moral of the story is that straight is fast, and keeping the elbow in toward the body keeps the movement straight.  Even people who conceptually understand this mechanic sometimes have trouble adhering to it.  Twisting the fist from palm-up to palm-down necessarily moves the elbow, and for many people it naturally drifts away from the body during that movement.

Master Jang from Sunrise Taekwondo (who I should mention is not Grandmaster Park's student and, to my knowledge, they have never even met each other) showed me how he teaches students to keep their punches straight.  He breaks it down into three steps:

Master Jang teaching, because he always seems to be doing that.

1.  Start by holding both fists out in front of the body to be aware of alignment in the end position.  Without twisting the arm at all, pull the hand halfway back to its starting position on the hip/belt/floating ribs/etc., according to your style.  During this movement, the forearm should brush against the side of the body.  Pause, then complete the movement. Ignore the punch, and reset the hand at the punch's end position and repeat the return movement.  Practice one side only, then practice the other side.

2.  Now add the punch.  As the returning hand pauses in its intermediate location, the punching hand should pause next to it.  It shouldn't twist at all in this stage of the movement, and the forearm should again brush against the side of the body.  Complete the movement and end in a punch with the back hand returned.

3.  Now take out the pause in the middle.  It should be a normal, full-speed punch at this point.

Here is a video of Master Jang demonstrating the progression.

And the same thing viewed from the side.

To my thinking, this drill provides three main benefits to the student.  First, it emphasizes brushing the arm against the side of the body, which will straighten out a punch all by itself.  Second, the pause in the middle allows the student to check their technique at the point where the mistake is usually made, whereas performing the punch at full speed can obscure the mistake.  And finally, it delays the twisting movement.  

This delay is correct according to the styles I have learned, though I'll certainly concede that others may teach punching differently.  But setting style differences aside, delaying the twisting movement allows for a straighter punch.  The elbow simply can't move very far laterally when the arm is more extended.  As an experiment, give this a try.  When your fist is near your body, it is easy to rotate the elbow, though you run the risk of looking very silly.  If you try the same shoulder movement with your arm most of the way extended, you can probably only move your elbow by a few inches.  So even a mistake in the shoulder movement can be minimized by delaying the twist.

It's a very specific drill to address a very specific problem, but if you happen to have that problem, I hope this helps.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Modern Side of Taekwondo

Depending on how you do your grouping and counting, taekwondo can be considered the most widely practiced martial art in the world.  For better or worse taekwondo is everywhere.  From tiny dojangs all over the world to the Olympics, taekwondo is practiced in over 200 countries with over 8,000,000 black belts and that doesn't even include those who practice ITF taekwondo.  At the center of this wide success is Kukkiwon, the headquarters of the World Taekwondo Federation, better known by its unfortunate acronym, WTF.

The gateway into Kukkiwon.

Like all things, taekwondo is a product of what it used to be.  To greatly oversimplify its history, there were originally nine styles, or "kwans," that combined to form Kukkiwon. The Korean government supported Kukkiwon and within Korea, this unified body reigned supreme.  Outside of Korea, where the Korean government couldn't reach, not everyone joined Kukkiwon.  There are still schools that teach according to the original kwans.

Each of the original nine kwans are commemorated in a museum at Kukkiwon.

The process of unification was not a smooth one, and to this day it can be a touchy subject to some.  So when a stranger at Kukkiwon asked me if I practiced taekwondo, it was a bit risky to answer as honestly as I did.  I said yes, but it was a little different because I came from a kwan.  He didn't seem offended but answered eloquently that it didn't matter, "as long as you wear the white uniform."  He went on to emphasize the importance of taekwondo uniting with one voice, and how much taekwondo has been able to accomplish through unity.  He cited the Olympics as an example.  He said that karate, lacking a single governing body over its 400 splintered organizations, has never been able to enter the Olympics as taekwondo has, and that Kukkiwon has made taekwondo powerful.

By chance I arrived at Kukkiwon during the demonstration team's practice time.  Much of what they did was a walk-through of their upcoming performance, but they also practiced some of their more challenging board breaking feats.  During the show they used demonstration boards, which are designed to break easily, but for rehearsal they kicked foam squares to conserve boards and to avoid littering the stage with splinters.  One particular break that the team found difficult involved running across the stage, jumping off a partner while being thrown higher, kicking a board mid-flip at the apex of the jump, and landing gracefully in a fighting stance.

Personally, I have absolutely no inclination to ever be two stories off the ground and upside down while in a state of free fall.  It probably goes without saying that a stunt like this is beyond my skill.  Even when they missed the break, or the kicker stumbled on the landing, I still thoroughly enjoyed watching them practice.  It made them seem more human to watch things happen less than perfectly, but also I loved that they seemed to be having fun.

When the performance began, it was broken into three sections.  The first was a demonstration of skills, and the second and third part told a story.  Like Cirque du Soleil, the story in a performance like this is a thinly veiled excuse for a visual feast.  For the story, the performers wore red, blue and black uniforms to indicate rival factions and played out an impressive display of stylized conflict, ending with a reconciliation and celebration of unity.  Throughout the performance the audience was treated to 45 minutes of stunning feats of martial athleticism.  This video should give you an idea.

And the break they were perfecting?  Here is the moment of truth:

After the show I spoke with one of the performers who happened to speak a little English. He had been training in taekwondo for 20 years.  I didn't ask his age, but I guessed that must have been pretty much his whole life.  He endured a grueling audition to secure his place on the demonstration team.  To start, they had to run 10 laps around the Kukkiwon building (my guess is that's about a 2-mile run), before demonstrating any techniques. They first had to show their command of basics, but they also had an opportunity to show off "specialty kicks."

Lim Hoosang, Kukkiwon Demonstration Team athlete.

Taekwondo is known for its graceful high kicks, and this trip to Kukkiwon did not disappoint.  But behind the flashiness and the impressive technique, there was an ever-present message.  Today in many parts of the world we can walk the streets safely without facing violence on a regular basis.  In this safer modern world, martial arts have often maintained their relevance by purporting to teach values.  Kukkiwon lists courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self control and indomitable spirit.  I found it oddly fitting that the value Kukkiwon sought so earnestly to impart on that day to be none of those, but unity.

Friday, November 6, 2015

In the Forbidden Garden

Changdeokgung, the Palace of Prospering Virtue, is the most picturesque of Seoul's five palaces.  The traditional right angles are often eschewed in favor of aesthetic merit. There's plenty to appreciate in the palace itself, but the gem of the site is Huwon, the garden behind it.

Some architecture in Changdeokgung Palace.

"Huwon" literally means the "Rear Garden," but it is also called the Forbidden Garden, the Inner Garden, or the Secret Garden.  It takes its more dramatic names from the rule that no one could enter it without the king's permission.  Today the names are still somewhat applicable because of how hard it is to get tickets.  This was my first visit to the garden, and it wasn't for lack of trying on previous trips to Korea.

Getting here is easy.  Getting further is hard.

The garden itself sprawls across 78 acres.  Much of it is a pleasant walk through wooded landscapes, but the garden also holds a number of pavilions and structures.  One of the first points of interest is this two-story pavilion.  The first floor was the royal library and the second floor was a reading room.

Juhamnu Pavilion behind Eosumun Gate.

A little deeper into the garden is Bulromun Gate, a simple stone archway carved from a single rock.  It is said to confer longevity and health to anyone passing through.

Health and long life?  Yes, please.  But two days later I caught a cold.

There are many beautiful ponds and pools in Korea's palaces.  Traditionally they are square to represent the Earth, in line with the beliefs of their architects.  This pond takes a smaller view.  It is the shape of Korea.

A pond in the shape of what is now North Korea and South Korea.

Deep in this garden created for the royal family's relaxation and amusement is the most unlikely addition--a rice paddy and a pavilion with a thatched roof.  This was created for a yearly ceremony in which the king would personally harvest the rice and rethatch the roof. By the king doing the work himself, the royal family could understand the hard work of the people he ruled.  This was no publicity stunt.  It was hidden away in the most private grounds of the palace where no ordinary farmer could ever see it.

Cheongeuijeong and the king's rice paddy.

The ceremony is still performed to this day, but since Korea hasn't had a king in over a century, the ceremony is now a historical reenactment.  

On the way out of the gardens, I snapped this picture of one of the main palace buildings. This was where the king would perform formal ceremonies and meet with dignitaries. Day-to-day ruling happened elsewhere.  But I always thought the most interesting thing about it was that these buildings are constructed entirely without nails.  Nails were only used to hang something on a wall.  This entire structure was built by cleverly interlocking tight-fitting pieces of wood.

Building this would be challenging even with the aid of nails.

Like many traditional Korean buildings, the corners in Changdeokgung palace have clay figurines called japsang.  There can be anywhere from three to eleven of them, but they always appear in odd numbers.  They are decorations, but they also were intended to ward off evil spirits.

So, Joseon Dynasty ghostbusters?

Changdeokgung Palace is over 600 years old.  It was burnt down partially or completely no less than three times over the course of Korea's turbulent history, each time being rebuilt according to the original design.  It has seen generations of kings come and go. But the palace grounds hold a living thing that has survived all this and more.

When 750 years old you reach, look as good you will not.

This is a Chinese Juniper tree planted here before the palace was built.  Its wood was used to make incense for rituals at a nearby shrine.

Downtown Seoul is only a few steps away, and the thick of the modern world with it.  On some level it seems absurd that these ancient sights can exist in the same space as high speed trains, free WiFi and skinny vanilla lattes.  But that is Seoul--a city that has enthusiastically embraced modern technology while still being very proud of its 6000 year history.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Taekyun as a Combat Sport

Taekyun has been practiced as a sport in Korea since at least the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), when its popularity soared and taekyun matches were first depicted in books. Taekyun is still practiced as a sport to this day, with the most prestigious event being the Taekyun Battle.

Teams of taekyun players gather from all over Korea to compete in the championship, which begins in May and ends in October every year.  I was lucky enough to be in Korea for the finals.

Taekyun Battle 2015 officials, demonstrators, and teams competing for 1st through 4th place.

How The Game is Played

Matches are full contact.  The only protective equipment is a mouth guard and a groin cup, although taekyun shoes have a minimal layer of padding built into the top of them. Beyond that, the players are completely unprotected.

There is no scoring in a taekyun match.  There are two ways to win--either by a successful kick to the face or by throwing the opponent on the ground.  Even though low kicks aren't tracked by the judges, they are still a major part of the game since they are used to weaken the opponent.

Low kicks are used to weaken the opponent.

A kick to the face will end the match.

A good throw will end the match.

At the Taekyun Battle, there are five players to a team.  Two players face off and have five minutes to win by head kick or throw.  At the end of the five minutes, if neither has achieved a victory condition, both players are eliminated.  If one does manage to decisively end the match, only the opponent is disqualified.  The winner stays to fight the next opponent from the other team.  In fact it's possible for one player to defeat an entire team single-handedly.

The game ends when one team's players have all been eliminated.

Taekyun Battle 2015 Finals

The opening ceremony for the finals included speeches by dignitaries and an explanation of the rules.  There were also demonstrations highlighting the aspects of taekyun that aren't immediately apparent from watching a taekyun competition.  One performance showed taekyun as a basics demonstration to live music and one showed taekyun as a practical martial art--both of which were fascinating, but will have to wait for another blog post.

The final match of 2015 took place between Sungju Taekyun Academy and a team of graduate students from Sungkyunkwan University.  Sungju, wearing muted red and green, had to travel about four hours to compete in Seoul.  Sungkyunkwan, wearing bright green, were much closer since their school is in Seoul.  These two teams had to eliminate ten others on their way to face each other in the finals. 

Sportsmanship:  Before the final match, Sungju surprises their opponents with fruit gift boxes.

Here is part of one of the match-ups, to give you an idea of how the game is played.  The nice folks at Kyulyun Taekyun provided this video and uploaded a longer version that shows all of the matches.

The judges confer about whether a high kick was blocked or not.

Kick blocked!  The match continues.

It ended up being a very close contest.  Two matches ended by kicks, two by throws, and two more ended with the clock eliminating both players.  Both teams were down to a single remaining fighter, and it all came down to the match up between Park Hyeonsu of Sungkyunkwan and Son Byungjun of Sungju.  Since it's determined by elimination instead of score, matches can be cruelly short.  Here is the final match-up in its entirety.

Taekyun Battle is finished until 2016.  Congratulations to the top four teams!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Because of Some Reading

After the 50 States Challenge part of my trip was done, there was still one last thing I had to do in Seattle.

A view from the water tower in Volunteer Park

But first, a flashback.  Just imagine your screen is doing that cheesy wobble thing and playing some stereotypical flashback sound.

When I was a color belt, I practically lived at the dojang.  One student quipped that I was there so often, the instructor was claiming me as a dependent on his taxes.  But it's impossible to be training every minute, so when I wasn't in class or practicing at home, I would read.

One particular book that I read was a collection of essays written by martial arts instructors.  One essay was about how instructors can adapt teaching techniques to help students who learn in different ways.  I thought the author might have some insight into a problem I had in sparring that had confounded both me and my instructors.

Between the references in the book and the wonder that is the Internet, I found an email address for a Sensei Carol Gittins.  I eagerly drafted an email explaining my situation and asking if she had any advice.  And then I didn't hear back.

I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised.  6th degree black belts (as she was at the time) are busy.  School owners are busy.  Published authors are busy.  6th degree black belt school owner published authors probably have better things to do than worry about some color belt clear on the other side of the country.

So I was quite surprised a couple months later to get a reply.  She apologized for the delay since their email had been down for a long time due to computer upgrades, and proceeded to write a detailed answer to my question.

I was excited and grateful, but some of what she suggested were drills specific to her style that I had never heard of before.  I had to sheepishly admit that I had no idea what she was talking about, and ask for some clarification.  She again sent back a detailed reply. We traded emails for months, and she always seemed just as happy to be answering my questions as I was to be getting those answers.  At one point, she recorded a video of her with one of her students performing one of the drills that she recommended, which she then burned to a DVD and mailed to me (stop laughing, it was the most convenient way to do it back then).

We kept in touch, and I promised that if I ever visited Washington, I would visit her in person.  It was the better part of a decade later when that finally happened.

Since I had no car, she picked me up in hers.  I thought it was funny to post on Facebook that, "I'm getting in a car with someone I met on the Internet!"  My family thought it was less funny.  Then she gave me a tour of the International District, Volunteer Park and Bruce Lee's Grave.

And the shore.

That was fun, but then I got a chance to train with her.  I have never seen, or even heard of a school like that before.  It's tiny.  There are only a handful of students, and they are all black belts.  The school has no website and almost no online presence, so I never would have found it on my own.  I feel very lucky to have been invited, though, because their approach was fascinating.

The classes were led by Sensei Gittins, but they were taught by everyone.  One might expect a class like this to be chaos, but it wasn't.

The class, minus the photographer.

The cliché about teaching being the best way to learn is a cliché for a reason.  Sensei Gittins is a professional educator with years of experience teaching both in public schools and in the dojo.  It's safe to say she knows what she's doing when it comes to the process of learning.  She directed each student to lead a part of the class, often just barely outside of their comfort zone, and often giving them some leeway in specifically what techniques they would cover.

I got a crash course in their curriculum.  There wasn't enough time to go into anything in depth, but I got a taste of quite a bit, spanning striking drills, sparring drills, one steps, joint locks, and forms.  She would direct someone to lead the class through five drills, then the next person had to lead us through a few more, and so forth.  Since I was completely absorbed in trying to make the most of my brief introduction to their material, I was surprised when she assigned me to lead the class through two techniques.

As luck would have it, before class one of the students mentioned that when she trained in taekwondo, she found a certain kick to be very difficult.  Class was about to begin, so I promised to show her a trick to make it easier afterward.  Class hadn't ended, but I found myself in a teaching situation and decided to use that time to answer her question.  I cannibalized part of my pivoting class that I had just taught, thereby making myself look much smarter than I actually am.  It looked like I came up with that lesson on the spot.

Sensei Gittins later told me that they operate the class with the philosophy that when you are struggling with something, you teach it until you figure it out.  It is a very different approach from any other school I've trained in, taught at, or even visited.  Even though this wasn't an official stop in the Challenge, the time I spent there was very much in the spirit of the project.  This is a project about teaching and learning and experiencing new ways of doing things.  I was beyond lucky to end up here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Does 400 Pounds of Food Look Like?

When I first spoke with Kris Wilder about the 50 States Challenge, he immediately suggested collecting and donating fresh fruits and vegetables, because those are scarce in food banks.  I liked the idea of everyone bringing a "ticket" to my class, which could be anything from a head of lettuce to a bag of apples.  But after discussing it with the West Seattle Food Bank, they came up with an even better idea.  It's a targeted program addressing a very specific problem.

Supporting an award-winning not-for-profit in Washington.

Some kids simply don't have enough healthy food to eat at home, so they rely greatly on school lunches.  That makes the weekend a tough time.  Often they're home alone for at least part of the time that their parents are at work, leaving them to prepare their own snacks and meals.  When they get back to school on Monday, even if they're not hungry, they're not necessarily nourished if they've been eating cheap snack food instead of balanced meals.

That's all unfortunate enough by itself, but it comes with some scary side-effects. Without the vital ingredients to build a healthy body and brain, malnourished kids get sick and miss school more often, have more trouble concentrating, and can lack the energy to participate in class.  Since their bodies are still growing, malnutrition in childhood can interfere with development and cause long term or permanent damage.  It can affect the whole class, too, because a child with poor nutrition is a staggering 7 to 12 times more likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Fortunately there are programs like West Seattle Food Bank's Backpack Program.  They provide backpacks for latchkey kids to assemble their own healthy meals over the weekends when they might otherwise go hungry.  The very generous students at West Seattle Karate donated an impressive 400 pounds of food to this program.

I thought that since the 50 States Challenge is just starting out, there would be a slow start.  We might only collect a couple bags of food and some lessons learned for next time.  Please enjoy these pictures of the students proving me wrong.

One of the classes hiding behind a whole lot of healthy meals.

Piled into the van, on the way to the food bank.

So what does 400 pounds of food look like?  It looks like a bunch of kids with a better shot at an education, a healthier childhood, and a greater chance of growing up to be healthy adults.

If you would like to support a cause like this in your community, get in touch with your local food bank.  Even if they don't have a backpack program, they may have something similar.  Volunteering or donating can make a huge difference to a lot of people.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Martial Artist's Look at Seattle

In between some of my more ridiculous antics in Seattle, I had some rather sobering experiences.  Here are a few of them.

Seattle Dojo - America's Oldest Judo School

Seattle Dojo has been in this stand-alone building since the 30's, but the school was originally established in 1902.  The building looks and feels old, and the way the room shakes when students practice their breakfalls is only a little disconcerting.  I am sure this school has many stories to tell, but here I am telling only one, regarding the calligraphy on the walls.

Inside the oldest Judo school in America.

Seattle Dojo's calligraphy was done by Jigoro Kano, who is more famous for founding judo than he is for calligraphy.  However, the calligraphy on the walls today are copies of the originals.

It happened during World War II.  The Japanese Internment is a shameful chapter in America's history, in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes and relocated to concentration camps.  It was driven by fear in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Anyone of Japanese descent was given a few weeks notice to pack a single suitcase and leave everything else behind.  Many believed that they would not survive the ordeal, and even if they did, they would never be allowed to return to their property.  Many chose to destroy their farms and homes rather than allow them to be confiscated.

A sign at the entrance to Seattle Dojo.

The school had to close from January 1942 to September 1947 during the Internment, but the building survived thanks to one of the students, a Jewish corporate attorney, who kept the deed to the school and many other Seattle area Japanese-American properties in the vault at Seattle First National bank. The FBI did not attempt to confiscate it, as they did with almost all other Japanese-American property.  It was gutsy, but it paid off.  When the people were released from the internment camps and allowed to return home, the school had survived.
However, after reopening the school, it was discovered that the calligraphy was missing from the walls.  It is unclear if there was a break-in or if the calligraphy was removed for safe-keeping, and then accidentally lost, during the chaotic three weeks in December 1941 when Japenese-Americans were forcibly removed to various camps. Jigoro Kano had passed away even before the start of the war, so the school had to commission copies to be made to replace the originals.

One of Kano's last visits to Seattle Dojo.

Even though it's always sad when a piece of history is lost, that's not my takeaway from this story.  This is a story of resiliency.  This is a story about a community coming together in the face of adversity.  One might attribute it to the martial spirit of the judoka who carried the school through events that should have killed it, so that today it has not only survives but even thrives.  I have never trained at Seattle Dojo, but I think if I did, I would be very proud to be part of that legacy.

Japanese Garden

Completely surrounded by city, Washington Park Arboretum includes the Seattle Japanese Garden.  This would be an amazing place to sit and relax, read, or just enjoy a leisurely walk.  Of course, I did none of those things.  I zoomed through, hoping to save time to experience as much of Seattle as possible.  Yeah, I fail at vacation.  Though the sky was just a little too overcast to take perfect pictures, I did get to take some good ones.

Every few steps there's a completely different but equally beautiful view.

I've never been to a Japaense garden before, but this park reminded me greatly of certain venues in Korea.  The style is one of people whose open space is at a premium.  While I certainly appreciate Western botanical gardens and arboretums, they have a very different feel.  Here, every few steps provides a view substantially different from the views around it.  There's no symmetry here.  Taking a picture from one side of the pond could never be confused with the view from the other side.

A lantern by the water.

This park was built in 1959, with its construction delayed from the anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of World War II.  Despite its newness, I was acutely aware of the history here.  The Nihon Shoki includes the earliest written mention of a Japanese garden. This is an art that has been in development for literally thousands of years.

Duck-sized koi in the pond.

In true Seattle fashion, it began to rain shortly after I arrived.  Not an unpleasant rain, but the kind of thing that is awful for taking pictures.  I'd love to return on a clear day and do it justice.

Bruce Lee Remembered

Bruce Lee is buried in Seattle.  I've only dabbled in kung fu, but even if I hadn't done that, I'd still feel his impact on martial arts.  He inspired so many people to start training.  He opened doors for so many people by advocating for kung fu to be available to everyone, not just Chinese.  He is less known for his involvement in promoting women in martial arts. I think it's fair to say that the martial arts landscape in America would look pretty different if not for what he did.  I took a moment to appreciate how much richer my martial arts experience has been because of him.

Thank you, and rest in peace, Mr. Lee.

It also crossed my mind to wonder what he might think of the reason I was there.  He is well known for his mixing of styles, and that gives me hope that he would have liked the spirit of this project, even if the execution is, for the time being, unproven.

The Wing Luke Museum had an exhibit for him called Do You Know Bruce?  They didn't allow photography, but the surrounding area was fascinating.

The Western entrance to the International District.

I want dragons to hold up power lines everywhere.

Seattle has a lot to offer the martial artist.  Should you find yourself there, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.