You Know More Than You Think You Do: What I Learned From Practicing “That Old Japanese Form” (The Poomsae Series Part 14)


This is my last essay examining an individual form. Unless I can talk one of the senior black belts into teaching me Sipjin or Jitae I’ve gone as far as I can go with black belt forms…for now. I plan on teaching myself Taeguk color belt forms, so that will definitely give me some insight to write about at a later date. But for now this is the end of the direction I’ve been taking with The Poomsae Series.


I don’t even know how to spell the name of the most recent form I learned. I’m going to take a guess and call it “Nopei” (pronounced NO-pay), or as one of the grandmasters in our circle calls it, “that old Japanese form.” At my school this form is learned along with Sipjin at fourth Dan. It’s the last form performed before one attains the level of master…in our school anyway. It’s the end of one journey and the beginning of another.

Nopei is a holdover from the old days of taekwondo, or at least the “old days” of the resurgence after the Japanese occupation of Korea and the rise of Korean grandmasters in the United States. It’s a very rarely taught or practiced form in the American taekwondo world, like Koryo One (see article for explanation) and more recently (and regrettably in my opinion) the Palgwe forms.

I asked the master who trained me for my black belt to teach it to me as somewhat of a goodbye. He was leaving the school to take a full-time job, and poomsae (forms) was one of his greatest talents. He always made forms look precise, strong, and smooth, and he expected no less from his students. He’s been my mentor, leader, and friend for several years, and I’ve modeled all the things I do well after his teaching, especially the way I practice and perform forms. I won’t blame him for the stupid things I do—that’s all me.

Nopei begins simply, even more simply than the Palgwe OR Taeguk forms: one double knifehand high block to the left followed by a slight shift in weight and another to the right. Fists go the belt and the black belt takes three determined steps forward—not slides, not in any fighting stances, just straight up walking (hell, practically strolling although in a very determined manner) with precisely rolling feet.

This is where it gets interesting. In a flash the black belt leaps from the simple walking position into a graceful landing onto the left leg and holds for a breath, just long enough to make an impression. The best way I can describe this movement is that it ends up looking like the Keumgang crane stance with diamond block except with knife hands and the lifted leg more angled for roundhouse kick rather than side kick. It’s a beautiful image, and I know my words don’t do it justice. Along with simple inside-to-outside knife hand strikes, a few middle punches, and a break in dead center with a downward punch (ideally with an actual board or block), the jump is performed three more times.

Nopei ends simply and softly with three high blocks to the back and, facing forward again, those same two knifehand blocks but with the body at a slight 45 degree angle, a subtle wink to whoever is paying close attention.

There are a few more novel pieces to the form after the break, but my favorite part to watch (and to do) is the jump. It’s so different from anything I’ve done in a form or anything I’ve done in five years of taekwondo classes for that matter. It takes some adjusting in both body and mental focus.

Things have changed dramatically for me in my little taekwondo world. The master who taught me the form is gone, we’ve moved to a new location and are still adjusting to the space, and there’s now a lot more pressure on me to lead classes.  For the first time it’s begun to feel like work and an obligation rather than an energy-booster and a pleasure, and that has broken my heart. My feelings toward and relationship with taekwondo has changed.

What this form has taught me is that I know more than I think I do. I can learn a deceivingly simple form with new and unfamiliar movements. I can lead other students and black belts. I can adjust to changes that I don’t necessarily want but have to accept.

Many years ago when I first got into the organizational development industry I was fretting over a project I didn’t feel qualified or experienced for. My director at the time, who was always kind and sincere, looked at me pointedly, said, “Melanie, you know more than you think you do,” and strolled into his office. I’ve never forgotten that moment and I keep that memory as a motivator whenever I’m faced with a challenge. I know more than I think I do at work, in taekwondo, and in life. I just have to relax and trust my instincts.

“Let’s do Nopei together so I don’t cry.” I was chatting with my master before an evening class during the last week he taught at my dojang. I was starting to get teary and emotional about the fact that I wouldn’t get to learn from him anymore. He has inspired, guided, and pushed me further than I thought I could go in the last five years. He’s the best “boss” I’ve ever had as far as grooming and preparing me for my own leadership role, even on the days when I didn’t like him very much, ha ha. These days when I really don’t want to teach I pull from a store of confidence I’ve been able to build through my master’s guidance. I know more than I think I do. He saw that in me before I even realized it.

Moving and breathing in unison we walked through the form together. Then he had me go through it on my own so he could observe, ever the instructor. That was the last form we practiced together and a fitting passing of the torch from teacher to student.

I know more than I think I do, and I know I can do this on my own.



Stand Your Ground: What I Learned From Practicing Pyongwon (The Poomsae Series Part 13)

stand sunset

I love poomsae (taekwondo forms), and I never miss an opportunity to practice and learn new forms. Pyongwon is typically learned at 4th Dan although at my dojang we learn it at 3rd Dan. Several months ago I talked my Master into teaching it to me shortly before I tested for 2nd Dan, just to give me a fun challenge to play with. We already do things differently by teaching Koryo AND Keumgang at 1st Dan and move on to Taebaek at 2nd Dan, so why stop there?

This form is short and linear, but also powerful and intimidating, both to watch and to learn. This form taught me to be strong and solid in my foundation, which I had to rely on recently in “real life.”

The concept of Pyongwon is twofold: (1) it represents a plain or vast field of land, which serves as a foundation and sustenance for life and (2) it’s based on the idea of peace and struggle….or, standing your ground. The physical movements of the form require core strength and mental concentration. Practicing the form itself feels like a mental struggle–which way to I go? Do I fight? Do I change directions? Do I stand firmly in place? Each movement is a calculated decision.

It’s an interesting form, but it’s not flashy like Koryo or Taebaek. This form is more reminiscent of the sturdy, complex yet primitive Keumgang, and even borrows that form’s signature mountain block. I get the same glint in my eye and twinge of quiet brutality in my stomach when I do Pyongwon as when I practice Keumgang. It challenges me to ground myself and focus on commanding the space. It taps into a darker part of my psyche.

Recently a colleague and I were placed in a very difficult position where we had to rely on our foundational values and internal strength. We faced the possibility of challenging an authority figure to defend what we believed was right. We faced with the very painful possibility of cutting ties with people we loved in order to defend and protect others we cared about. Feelings could be hurt on all sides, and relationships could be irreparably damaged.

The last few days have been stressful and emotionally draining in light of this challenge. I played scenarios over and over in my head–sometimes I was stoic. Other times I was volatile and biting. Other times I was calm and poignant. I reminded myself that whenever this situation might come to a head I would need to model the black belt tenets of integrity, courtesy, respect, perseverance, and compassion, even if I wanted to run or if I wanted to go against what had become my foundational values.

Thankfully the crisis was somewhat averted. Drama did not ensue (too much), and I felt a weight lift from my shoulders (two big glasses of wine also helped). Reflection on how events actually played out, however, strengthened my resolve to stand my ground, bravely face the internal struggle of the desire for peace and the instinct to fight, and protect the people I care about.  That is the true calling of a black belt.

The Poomsae Series Part 12: Taebaek, Or, Old is New Again


I’m officially a second degree black belt now, and that means with a new rank I have a new form and a new addition to the Poomsae Series! Yay! Enjoy!*

“It’s like a recap,” my chief instructor said one day when we were discussing the second dan black belt form Taebaek. “Now you’re second degree,” he continued hypothetically, “So let’s make sure you remember all your old color belt forms.”

“More like a clip show like on TV,” I countered. “They’re too lazy to make new material, so they just put a bunch of random old stuff together.”

I was marveling at the fact that Taebaek, the form we at my dojang learn as a second degree black belt, seemed so much easier to learn and seemingly less complicated than the two first dan forms, Koryo and Keumgang (Some teach Keumgang at second degree, Taebaek at third, etc. We do things a little differently). I’d heard my instructor for a long time claim that Taebaek was a mash up of old Palgwe forms, but it never really resonated until I learned the form myself.

I actually learned this form last summer as a first degree black belt, and it all started as a joke wrapped in a dare. During class one night a second degree black belt, who always seemed to forget that he had to use the bathroom until about 10 seconds before break time was over, was absent from his spot in line.

“Go ahead, Melanie, fill in,” my instructor said, gesturing for me to take my place at the front of the class. “Now you’re second degree!”

“Cool! Does this mean I can learn Taebaek?” I giggled. To my surprise (and utter delight) he took me up on it about two weeks later and taught me and a fellow first dan the form. This was the first form I had ever been able to remember in its entirety the first day of learning it.

If this form is a clip show, it’s also a video game filled with fun “Easter eggs,” at least for certain taekwondo practitioners who still do the old school beautiful and complex Palgwe forms. It truly is a mishmash of a sweet new moves like breaking an arm, which is awesome, and many signature pieces of color belt Palgwe forms, which I know quite well. (I suppose it’s new to Taeguk practitioners. If you’re curious, look up videos of Palgwes Yuk Jang, Sah Jang, Pal Jang, and Oh Jang, and see if you can spot the shout outs.) Like Koryo, it follows the very familiar Palgwe sideways H pattern. Unlike Keumgang, it’s not a directional mindf*ck.

Taebaek starts out with a new move, a crossed knife hand block (I found it a bit drill team-y but went with it) followed by a familiar front snap kick and double punch. Okay, this is interesting. Then as you turn to the front–BAM!–the double knife hand high block/strike from Palgwe Yuk Jang. What!? YAASSSS, the form with flair! Okay, um, that was a pleasant surprise! Let’s keep going. There are a few more new pieces (and in slow motion too!) and then BAM!–the signature “crescent moon” double block of Palwge Sah Jang. Oooh, this is fun to revisit, and it comes with arm break, and a punch! Get it girl, let’s kick some ass in style!

Turning in a 90 degree angle and moving to the back is reminiscent of the block/spear hand combo in both Sah Jang and Pal Jang, and then oh snap, it’s that f*cking scissor block from Oh Jang! Aw, HELL no! I thought we were done with that awkward, needlessly complex blue belt form, but noooo, it just has to get in one more jab. Y’all, I can hardly contain myself. Maybe a nicer way to refer to this form than clip show is homage.

Although Taebaek pulls heavily from lower level forms, it has a freshness and sense of humor to it. It’s a reminder that you don’t have to turn away from your roots when you want to keep growing. What got you to first degree won’t necessarily get you to second or third degree, but you can still draw on your experiences. It’s an opportunity to add black belt understanding to color belt principles. You don’t have to do away with who you are. Continue to draw on your good qualities, and just, well, turn it up a notch.

[*I actually composed this article last summer, but I didn’t want to jinx myself and post it before I got second degree…and then I learned that it’s usually a third dan form at other schools, and I’ve learned that one too already, so the hell with it, I’m writing an article on the third/fourth dan form Pyongwon. Stay tuned…]

Finding Fresh Ways to Learn…Or, I Geek Out at a Forms Seminar


This past weekend I attended a poomsae (forms) referee seminar sponsored by USA Taekonwdo, the national governing body for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and is a member of the World Taekwondo Federation. I’m not really interested in judging or refereeing at tournaments, but since forms are one of my favorite aspects of practicing taekwondo, I was curious enough to sign up.

I figured it would be good to know what judges were looking for so I could prepare our students (and myself) to compete in forms at the next tournament and just improve our daily practice in the dojang. Plus I get a little tired of always being on the facilitator side of training, so once in a while I like to be a participant and learn something new.

Oh my, the math and the details! I knew when we were handed a sample of the official scoring sheet that our brains were going to be spinning. We discussed accuracy and presentation (and the sub-categories of each), major deductions versus minor deductions, disqualifications, and rules for recognized forms versus freestyle forms. I didn’t realize how much and quickly forms judges need to react, calculate, and recalculate all within about a minute of a competitor performing a form.

The fun part began when the instructor began demonstrating details (both mistakes and what judges want to see) of kicks, blocks, strikes, and stances. “Is that a major or minor mistake?” he’d frequently ask. As the morning went on our answers were more confident, and we’d nod and smile in recognition. He then began performing combinations of forms and asked us to critique through the lenses of accuracy and presentation.

While the instructor used Taegeuk forms for most of the examples, which I am not familiar with (we practice the older, more traditional Palgwe forms at my dojang), he did make several references to the black belt forms Koryo and Keumgang, so I had light bulbs exploding over my head during those moments…if anyone saw me nodding and whispering “Ah-haaaa” while scribbling down notes it was probably during the Keumgang examples.

Did I not have a clue about accuracy or presentation during the Taegeuk combinations? Of course not. It turns out that technique is technique is technique, which I suspected all along. It’s not like the Taegeuk forms have completely different movements. A low block is a low block no matter where it falls in the form. Alignment, accuracy, tempo and rhythm, power…those are key elements we teach as well with our Palgwe forms.

And lest anyone think I’m cheating on my own home dojang instructors, I still defer to their teaching methods when I’m practicing my own forms or coaching another student. However, it’s nice to get an outsider’s perspective once in a while, even when I disagreed on some of the finer details. For a poomsae nerd like me, talking about nothing but forms for four hours was heaven.

Now to truly prove that one can use transferrable knowledge to a new situation (meaning, I can perform and judge a form blindly) I probably should have stayed for the second part of the day when the class was going to perform several Taegeuk forms. Technique is technique, right? I should just be able to learn and perform the form on the spot since I’m supposedly good at forms and pay a lot of attention to detail, right?

Well…yeah…but I opted out, mostly because I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time since I’d just slow down the process (everyone else knew the forms). I also knew my Koryo and Keumgang were different enough stylistically that I’d stand out if we did the black belt forms, and I happen to prefer my ways of doing Koryo and Keumgang. And…well…I had company coming that afternoon and figured opening a fresh bottle of wine would be a better use of my time.

I thanked the instructor, told him the lecture and demonstration portion was fabulous, and assured him that I could apply everything I learned that morning back in my home dojang. The seminar inspired me to refine my own forms practice even more, and it gave me some language and talking points to use when I give feedback to other students.

The moral of the story: seek out continuing education in whatever it is you love to do whether you’re feeling stale, looking for a new perspective, wanting to learn a new skill, or simply want to enhance and revitalize your practice.

Channeling Your Power: When Brute Force Just Doesn’t Cut It


A tall, blonde 17-year-old boy stood at attention near the back of the training area as I gave him some feedback and pointers on his form. He and his three siblings, all blue belt/red tips, were practicing the form Palgwe Yuk Jang in preparation for an upcoming  tournament.

“You have a lot of power, and that’s good,” I began. “This is a short form, but it’s expressive and strong so you need that power…there is, however, such a thing as too much power, or maybe the better word is force. Does that make sense?” He nodded.

This kid has plenty of force. He can beat the hell out of a punching bag and a sparring opponent. His flying side kick and his 360 roundhouse kick are impressive and strong. He’s a big kid, but he can be graceful in certain moments whether it’s intentional or not. So far I’d seen more on the forceful side rather than focused energy.

“When you just rely just on force that’s uncontrolled it can be loose and inaccurate,” I continued, demonstrating a floppy punch, exaggerating the torque with my shoulder. “Punch from the belt rather than the shoulder and add that twist right at the end. That puts it dead in the center and hits a softer target, plus you protect your ribs.”

“Also, your snap kick will be a lot stronger if you pop it from the knee rather than slinging it forward, which can mess up your balance.” I hiked my right knee up towards my chest and shot out a front snap kick toward an imaginary opponent’s torso. I bent my leg again and landed softly into a solid front stance.

“Channel your power, and that will make a big difference.” I smiled at him.

“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled back, and we bowed to each other before he trotted back to join his brothers and sister.

His sister, meanwhile, needed to use a bit more power (or force). Palgwe Yuk Jang is a beautiful form, and she made it look pretty, but there was no edge.

“Think about it. Every single move you make, whether it’s a block, kick, or strike, is making impact with someone else’s body,” I said to her, snapping my arms into a double knife hand high block. “You should feel like you’re hitting someone Every. Single. Time.” She and her brothers nodded thoughtfully and tried out a few blocks on their own.

Power is a funny, fickle thing. Too much of it can lead to abuse and tyranny. Too little of it can leave one too vulnerable and at risk for loss. We all have power or at least potential for power, although it may not be evident in the same ways. Some people make more money, have more people reporting to them, have more physical strength, or may have other talents and skills. That doesn’t mean those without those superficial markers can’t be powerful. It also doesn’t mean that those who are “blessed” with those advantages know how to channel their power to the best of their abilities.

Once in a while brute force is a good thing. If I’m trapped in a burning car there better damn sure be someone using brute force to rescue me. The poor movers who had to lug heavy furniture up my steep and precarious stairs used every ounce of brute force they had (for which they were well tipped). I wish I had more pure brute force when fighting people larger than me, but since I don’t, I’ve had to learn to channel my power in more concentrated ways.

Sometimes brute force just doesn’t cut it, at least not in the long term. It doesn’t have to just be physical force that some people misuse. People forcefully brutalize others emotionally, mentally, even financially (think Bernie Madoff). Eventually, though, bullies and abusers are exposed. People stand up to them, or through their own hubris, stupidity, and unchecked power, they create their own downfall.

What is your source of power? What is your strength? Is it loose and inaccurate, or is it controlled, concentrated, and calculated? Being more mindful of your own power AND how to use it (for good, not evil, folks) can help you hit your target more accurately over time. Maybe your target is a sparring opponent. Maybe it’s a college degree or a raise at work. Maybe it’s improving your cooking skills or learning a musical instrument. Maybe it is overcoming emotional struggles.

Whatever that target is, channel your power, aim, and fire!

Guest Post: Using Martial Arts Forms As Moving Meditation

Check out July’s guest post from Book Martial Arts!
Discipline of the Body and Mind: Using Forms as Moving Meditation.

Poomsae_Training (Medium)

Nothing, and I mean nothing has helped me practice presence better than taekwondo. This month I go all hippie in the dojang and discuss how the martial arts student can use their poomsae, kata, or other type of form to quiet the mind, focus the body, and ultimately improve their practice.

Thinking of starting your own Taekwondo journey? Interested in honing in your martial arts skills? From Kung Fu to Capoeira you can find, browse and book a vast selection of martial arts training camps at, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It


Sup, tornado! Wanna fight??

Sometimes, for reasons that make sense and just as often for reasons that don’t, I get sad. The feeling can overtake me in a flash. It’s not dissimilar from the Texas storms that mark the beginning of spring (and more pointedly, tornado season): suddenly the sky turns greyish-green, the tornado sirens are wailing, the rain starts pounding sideways, and the household lights flicker. It can be terrifying and paralyzing, and then just as quickly as it began, it’s over.

Recently I was hit with one of those emotional “rain squalls” and found myself hunched at my dining table with my head in my hand and tears streaming silently down my face.  It just happened, and while I knew it wasn’t for a rational reason, I gave in and let it take over for a few minutes. I knew it would pass, but it was agonizing.

Then I popped up out of the chair and did something I’ve never done before when I’ve been upset and overwhelmed:

I did a taekwondo form.

I stood in ready stance at one end of my living room, took a deep breath, and launched into what we call “Koryo One” at my dojang. This is a rarely practiced form that is different from the well-known and universal “Koryo” black belt form. At our school a student learns Koryo One as a bo dan in preparation to test for first degree black belt. To read more about “Koryo One” click here. To read more about the universal “Koryo,” click here.

Anyway, our Koryo One is a short but powerful and interesting form. It has eye punches and face smashes, and you can’t get much better than that in a form. Going through the form only took a minute or two, but I immediately felt better. The tears had dried, my breathing was steady, and my mind was calm. I decided to see what happened when I tried another one.

I did Koryo Two, or what is better known as the universal black belt form “Koryo,” and was especially forceful with the knee breaks and throat grabs. I played around with the timing and tried to incorporate some of the things I’d been tweaking earlier in the week in class.

Not bad. I was feeling a little better.

I kept going through a short list of my favorite forms that are especially strong and beautiful: Keumgang (yes, really, after all the confusion of learning, it I love it), Palgwe Chil Jang, and Palgwe Sah Jang.

As I was going through the forms I thought about the advice I had given some younger students the night before: “Make it look powerful. Don’t just walk through it; you’re in a fight. Make it POP!” I remembered how I demonstrated power to the students: as I was glaring at them out of the corner of my eye to make sure they paid attention, I lunged forward into a front stance and snapped my fists forward into a double gut punch. I let out a sharp exhale and imagined clocking someone in the sides. POP!

When my emotions tried to take over again, I fought harder against my invisible enemy. My blocks were strong, my kicks were sharp, and my transitions were smooth. I was light on my feet (mostly so I wouldn’t disturb my downstairs neighbors) and highly alert. There was no feeling of terror or paralysis as long as I was kicking my mind’s butt. The flash flood was over.

It felt appropriate to end my little cool-down session with Palgwe Pal Jang, a form that according to taekwondo tradition, symbolizes a return to earth and a sensation of becoming grounded. By the time I finished my set I even had a little smile on my face.

I stood still for a moment as my breathing slowed and realized that my mind was completely quiet. I didn’t feel drained as one might after a good long crying session. I felt more that I was cleansed. Out of curiosity I tried to muster up the stress and anxiety I had been feeling earlier, and I simply couldn’t. My mind was too quiet and empty to put forth the effort.

We do not have to become terrified or paralyzed when feelings of sadness, anger, stress, or fear loom over us like a storm cloud. We can observe the emotions for what they are (a passing storm), and let the rain wash through us as we stand strong. I regained my power through my forms. For others it might be prayer, meditation, a deep breath, or a long run that helps them refocus and regain a sense of calm. Whatever it is, find what grounds you, and stand strong.