I can always count on taekwondo poomsae (forms) to have a calming, focusing effect on my mind and body. Forms were very much needed yesterday when I was feeling out of sorts.
Yesterday I learned the hard way that reintroducing black coffee back into my body after avoiding it for about a year thanks to a fun digestive illness needs to be done in relatively small doses. After a large cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a venti cappuccino from Starbucks, and another half cup of coffee later my body was shaking and my heart was fluttering. I swear for a moment I had double vision and nearly missed a step when I was walking to the front door of my taekwondo school.
On nights when I have class I usually arrive to the dojang about 40 minutes early to warm up and run through my forms. Since my brain and body were feeling scattered I decided to start with my familiar Palgwe color belt forms rather than the eight Taeguk forms I still hadn’t quite mastered. Okay, this will be easy. I can do this. I began with Palgwe Il Jang, the lowest ranking color belt form, turning to my left and executing a low block in a front stance.
Then I did an outside block with my back hand without stepping forward.
I gave my reflection in the mirror I was facing an exasperated glare. I was caught red-handed.
Blocking with the back hand is a signature move in Taeguk forms, much to my dismay and that of my fellow Palgwe snobs. I thought about texting my former Master what I had just done because I thought it was funny. He would either laugh along with me or threaten to punch me. I decided to just get my head on straight and do Palgwe Il Jang the correct way, starting with a low block and then stepping FORWARD to do an outside-to-inside block with my leading hand just as God and logic intended.
As I flowed through my trusty Palgwe forms, the oddity “Koryo One,” and transitioned into Taeguk color belt forms I noticed shifts in my thought processes and little cues I gave myself. Once I got into the groove of the forms I’d been practicing and teaching for years it felt effortless. When I switched to Taeguk, however, my awareness and physical decisions slowed down and required more forethought. It was like I had shifted from speaking my native English to a different language.
I used to be fairly fluent in Spanish. I took four years of Spanish in college and attended a language immersion institute for two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I loved the language: speaking it, writing it, reading it. I never quite got the hang of being able to think in Spanish, though. When I was having a conversation I was always rapidly translating back and forth in my head and had to rein in my individual linguistic peculiarities and idioms. I felt like a bit of my personality had been washed out in order for me to get my message across efficiently. Once in a while I would have a brain scramble and I’d mix the languages together as I did when I threw a Taeguk move into my first Palgwe form of the evening.
Trying to speak a second language might have limited my ability to fully express myself, but it did make me a better listener and forced me to be mindful about the words I chose to say.
I now know thirty forms, but I wouldn’t say I’m fully fluent in all of them yet.*
Practicing my Palgwe forms reminded me of when I was on a roll with a writing project at work or giving a presentation I’d given many times before. I felt intelligent and creative. As I practiced the black belt form Keumgang I caught myself giving myself not only corrections and cues I’d picked up from instructors but was also using my “instructor voice” on myself. Once in a while I might have a brain freeze, but I was quickly able to clearly articulate with my body and mind the full expression of the forms. By the time I got to the beautiful and elusive No Pae I felt like I was performing Shakespeare.
During my Taeguk forms I was reminded of my internal English/Spanish translation experiences. I had to be much more thoughtful and careful. I knew I was still “speaking” Taeguk with my Palgwe “accent” and had to fight myself on those tricky back hand blocks and unfamiliar walking stances. I had to think much more simply in order to perform what I had not quite yet memorized and hadn’t begun to fully explore. My taekwondo mind shifted from experienced black belt instructor to concentrating and still learning student. I had to listen to my body and my memory much more acutely and in a more steamlined way than I did with the forms I know so well.
I am building my fluency and confidence in Taeguk. On the other side of the training room some kids were asking an instructor about a knifehand block/elbow strike combo.
“Is this in Taeguk 4 or 5?” one of the students asked.
“It’s in 5,” I muttered aloud to myself without skipping a beat. Maybe I’m learning this new language faster than I give myself credit for doing.
Noticing the shift in thinking during my different sets of forms made me appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and conversation. Sometimes it’s our moment to let our personalities and talents shine as we wax poetic about a topic we’re passionate about, and other times it’s more appropriate to listen and very carefully choose what we’re going to say next. A skilled conversationalist knows when to do both. I hope at some point I can be as expressive with my Taeguk forms as I am with my Palgwe color belt forms and black belt forms. I also think I have the opportunity to slow down and mindfully choose and refine my techniques in the forms I’m much more familiar with.
By the time I’d gone through my forms for the evening I was sweating and panting. Thankfully my body had shaken loose the coffee jitters and fragmented focus, and my heart was now just pounding healthily from an athletic workout.
Now I was comfortable. I was speaking (and listening to) a language I love.