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

renew

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…]

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

get-excited-and-start-learning

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

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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 BookMartialArts.com, the world’s leading martial arts travel website.

A Surprising Way to Snap Out of It

tornado

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.

The Poomsae Series Part 11: Koryo, or Managing Change Like a Black Belt

This post is part of The Poomsae Series, which discusses life lessons gained from taekwondo forms or “poomsae.” Forms, typically practiced to hone technique, have also been for me a type of moving meditation that quiets my mind and helps me stay present.

[A Note for Taekwondo Folks: In this post I’m discussing the common first dan black belt form Koryo. In my school we refer to it as “Koryo Two” because we also do a rarely-used, older form at the bo dan level we call “Koryo One.” Bo dan is the final color belt level before first degree black belt. Reader Jon Karlsen was kind enough to post a video of “Koryo One” in the comments of this post. To avoid confusion among readers from different schools, in this post I will refer what my school calls “Koryo Two” by its universal name, Koryo.]

In case I’ve needlessly confused anyone with that introduction, I’m talking about THIS ONE:

koryo ready stance

ANYWAY…

Even though it’s not a mind-melt like the primitive, creepy, and confusing other first dan form Keumgang (don’t tell me that mountain block/horseback stomping thing isn’t unnerving), Koryo gave me a run for my money when I was first learning it. While it follows the familiar sideways H pattern of the color belt Palgwe forms, Koryo is complex and full of intricate pieces, much like the blue belt form Oh Jang or the black tip form Pal Jang.

Not only is Koryo complicated, it is downright nasty, incorporating double side kicks, throat grabs, knee breaks, and a move that a teenage classmate so eloquently refers to as “mining the family jewels.” Even the ready stance at the very beginning is threatening. There’s a lot going on in this form.

As I do whenever I’m learning a new form, I’ve been waiting for the lesson of Koryo to emerge. It hit me during a recent staff meeting that Koryo can teach me how to manage change in a confident and mature way. Guess what we were talking about in the staff meeting? Hint: it wasn’t knee breaks, although that would have been fun.

My team recently experienced a major change that we’re just now figuring out how to maneuver around. For some of my teammates the change is a profound shift in their identity and focus. For me, it’s narrowing the scope of what I do. I still report to the same person and will hang onto the major projects, so it’s not as big a change for me as it is for others. As with Koryo, I’m still following the same foundational “pattern,” but some of the details will be new and different. I see this as an opportunity to help my coworkers who are experiencing a greater change than I am. If I’m expected as a black belt to guide less experienced students, I can also help the teammates who are going through greater change navigate the unfamiliar.

Like most employees in the corporate world, I’m no stranger to change. As a long-time employee in the corporate headquarters of a large multi-hospital healthcare organization, I’m VERY used to experiencing change. Notice I said “used to” change, but not necessarily “comfortable” with change. I’ve had to learn how to adapt along with everyone else.

Whether you’re a martial artist, a couch potato, a corporate employee, entrepreneur, a new parent, or a college student, there are some things you can do to manage change with black belt confidence:

1. Trust your past experience.
You know more than you think you do. Everyone has transferrable skills they can use to help them adapt to new situation. Koryo is a complicated form, but much of it is comprised of strikes, stances, and blocks that I already know. I’ve also developed enough skill and body awareness to pick up on new things more quickly than I could when I was a lower ranking student, so I know I’ll get it down eventually. Are you changing careers? Beginning an internship? Starting a business? Trust your past experience.

2. Ask for help.
I learned early in my career (and my taekwondo journey) that it’s better to ask for clarification up front rather than pretend I understand and then have to go back and ask for help later. Asking for help does not mean you are stupid, lazy, or incompetent. Asking for help shows humility, thoughtfulness, and dedication. If someone has a problem with you asking for help, that’s on them, not you.

3. Surround yourself with smart allies.
This goes hand-in-hand with asking for help. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. Seeking out those with different experiences and skills will help you deal with areas that are out of your comfort zone.

4. Ask for the “why.”
The biggest complaint I hear about change is the feeling of being kept in the dark. If you’re not given the reason why behind a change, ask for it! You’re not being insolent or difficult. Explain that understanding why things are changing will help you be better prepared to adapt quickly and contribute to the change process. On the taekwondo front, when I was learning the black tip form Pal Jang, things finally started to click for me when my Grandmaster explained the purpose of each of the blocks and strikes. Koryo has a logical flow and rhythm to it as well. (Keumgang still makes no sense.)

Incidentally, if someone has a problem with you asking “why” then they are probably the same type of jerk who gets huffy when you ask for help.

5. Learn!
Learn from your failures as well as your triumphs. One of my coworkers has a saying: “Don’t be frustrated; be fascinated.” When presented with a challenge, view it as a puzzle to solve rather than a hardship to endure. The willingness to learn (and APPLY what you learn) gives you your power back when you may be feeling helpless in a volatile, changing situation.

….or just break someone’s knee if that’s easier.

The Poomsae Series Part 10: Keumgang, or Why Do We Make the Simplicity of “Being Present” So Damned Difficult?

mount-kumgang

The Poomsae Series is BACK! This series of blog posts discusses the life lessons I’ve learned from taekwondo forms, or “poomsae” in Korean. Forms put the “art” in martial arts, and are one of the best ways to practice discipline of the body and mind. I’ve begun learning the two forms required for first dan black belt, and am just now starting to uncover what these forms are challenging me to do beyond stances and strikes.

Today’s post is about Keumgang, a form named for a beautiful mountain (“Diamond Mountain”) in the eastern portion of North Korea. Since there are many resources on the web about the history of this form and the region from where it derives its name and influence–plus this lovely song–I’m simply presenting insight gained from practicing the form.

This form is RAW. There is nothing pretty or lyrical or intellectually complex about it (one could argue against that, but we’ll save that for a different post). The movements are thick, heavy, and forceful. Other than a few palm-heel strikes and knife-hand blocks at the beginning, it’s all popping fists and stomping feet. To the untrained eye it might even appear boring and crude. If Koryo, the other first dan black belt form, were a conversation, it would be a razor-sharp battle of wits (and knee breaks), whereas this form simply says, “Shut up and get the hell out of my way.”

It’s been surprisingly difficult to learn Keumgang compared to how I learned the color belt forms and Koryo. For whatever reason I have a mental block that sets my brain into panic mode rather than letting me muddle through the learning process with ease. I still have a long way to go before I feel comfortable flowing through this supposedly “easy” form on my own without the guidance of an instructor or the visual cues from more experienced black belts.

As with my other forms, I’ve opened my mind to what Keumgang can teach me aside from the physical movements. I think I’ve figured out the lesson from this form:

Be present. Stop avoiding it and making everything so difficult. Seriously.

I’ve mentioned before how taekwondo, whether I’m free sparring or doing forms, forces me to be more focused on the present moment than any other venture, including yoga and traditional meditation. There’s a sense of mindfulness and presence with all the forms, of course, but this form, this simple flow of anger and brute force, shoves the ugly truth in my face: I, like millions of other people, am still stuck in my head more than I thought I was.

Just as the busy, chattering mind can wander during meditation or a car ride or a conversation, it’s very easy to get lost in this form if you’re even stuck in your head for just a moment. Before you know it, the repetitive, simple movements can lock you into a continuous loop, a purgatory of horseback stances and side punches. Even my instructors have gotten caught up in the hypnotic nature of it, urging us to continue after the form has actually ended, and leaving my classmates and I to glance at each other helplessly while we do yet another mountain block.

How often does your mind wander when you’re trying to be present? Focusing on the present moment can be unappealing and difficult if we don’t practice. We love to make simple things needlessly complex. We’re in our heads all the time, telling ourselves stories and worrying, and meanwhile we’re just sloppily going through the motions with whatever we’re doing at the moment. Just as I go into mental overdrive as I continue to learn Keumgang in class, my mind, if unchecked, tries to unleash hell when I’m seeking peace and quiet. I make it too complicated. I’m sure I’m not alone in this: I avoid resting in the stillness of presence even though I know it’s the best thing I could do for myself.

I’m looking forward to the day when I truly experience the quiet depth and meditative power of this unusual form both in the dojang and in daily life.

Stop.
Breathe.
Be still, and you will be strong.