white belt uniform

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know how I feel about forms. I’ve written over two dozen blog posts about the mental and physical benefits (and inevitable life lessons) of practicing poomsae.

To my surprise, my physical therapist casually mentioned that I should start doing slow-motion forms to work on balance and transferring weight back and forth on my legs. I’m nearly three weeks post-op from ACL reconstruction surgery, and, if I’m careful, I can move around the house with just my leg brace. I was excited about the prospect.

I’ve done forms as mental therapy. I’ve never done them as physical therapy, so this will be a new recovery/martial arts adventure for me.

My therapist doesn’t know the intricate details of taekwondo forms, but he figured it might be similar to doing tai chi. He’s not wrong. Forms have a way of centering you mentally and physically, help you control your breathing, and are a good way to work on directional changes and weight transferral.

At the therapy clinic one day I started running through forms in my mind to determine which ones would be the best candidates for home practice. I’m not a huge fan of Taeguk forms, having been steeped in Palgwe during my black belt training, but the walking stances I turn my nose up at so much (we used to call it “broken knee stance” in my old dojang) would be an easy way to get back into some semblance of taekwondo practice. Back stances and especially front stances, which are in all Palgwe forms, seem more intimidating right now with my very unstable right leg. Even the easiest form, the universal kibon, is nothing but front stances.

I can’t even think about horseback stance right now.

I decided I’d try the first two forms in each style: Taeguk Il Jang and Palgwe Il Jang. Taeguk Il Jang is mostly made of forgiving walking stances and simple movements. I could ease into the form’s few front stances after a few paces. Then I could work my way up to the first Palgwe form, which has mostly front stances and a few back stances and no kicking.

Go time. Let’s do some forms. I stood in my living room, the afternoon sunlight peeking in, fists in front of my torso as I settled into ready stance. And then I began with a–


The very first movement of Taeguk Il Jang, even before that walking stance, is a pivot to the left.

I can’t pivot right now! I just had knee surgery! I found myself in a bit of a pickle.

Do you know how much pivoting and sliding and turning is involved in forms? Of the thirty forms I know, only five begin with a forward motion rather than an immediate pivot to the left from the ready stance position (Taeguk Pal Jang, Palwges Oh Jang and Chil Jang, Koryo One–see my post about this unique form, and Keumgang). Taeguk Pal Jang and Koryo One are off the table for now since they have jump kicks, Keumgang has a lot of one-leg balances, and the other Palgwes are too complicated right now. I’d have to slow this way down.

So I wobbled and slowly turned to the left and did my walking stance with a low block without putting pressure on my right knee to turn. Cool. Step forward and punch, easy. And then I had to pivot again.

Slowly I made it through the Taeguk form (without the full snap kicks) and, shakily, through the first Palgwe form. I realized that I’d have to rewire my brain for something else besides balance, weight transference, and bending my knees: strikes and blocks! My upper body had inevitably shifted its focus from doing its own thing to helping me balance while I moved on an unstable leg, so my reaction and execution times had slowed way down.

I’d have to go back to basics, even further back than beginner forms. It was time for some stance and strike work. I stood in my office, unintentionally facing my first and second Dan certificates framed on the wall, and gingerly shifted into a back stance while doing a low knife hand block and middle knifehand block. I used to do things like that all the way up and down the training floor, but now I had to contend with a tender, awkward leg and keeping myself upright.

After a while I got the hang  of it, but I felt as uncomfortable as a white belt. Doing a low block and punch in a front stance was even harder. My upper and lower body weren’t moving in sync, and I had to step into stances rather than slide into them. I was afraid to put full force into my strikes and blocks lest it send pain shooting down my leg or cause me to topple over.

My Master at my old dojang used to say, “A good [whichever] belt is a good white belt.” If you’re a good green belt or black belt or anything, that means you have a good white belt foundation. I’m a little disheartened that I’m struggling with simple things like pivoting and doing strikes or blocks as I move into stances (especially since the quad graft makes bending my knee particularly difficult), but it also gives me something to look forward to.

Slow to go fast, right?

I may not be able to go back into the dojang for several months, but I can start re-building myself from the ground up. I’ll come back as an even stronger black belt with a solid white belt foundation.


Stay tuned for my upcoming book– “Kicking and Screaming: a Memoir of Madness and Martial Arts” published by She Writes Press. Coming to a bookseller near you April 20, 2021!

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