I can win a game of pool, but I’m not very good at starting one. Let’s just be real–I’m terrible at breaking. I can never seem to get enough power to create a smooth and clean strike. More often than not, the cue ball barely moves the rack of balls, and sometimes I end up scratching. The last time I did a decent break had more to do with the extra-smooth surface of the table I was playing on than any of my technique.
Come to think of it, I could never get the hang of serving in a tennis match either. Sure, I could chase after the ball and lob it over the net, but starting the game on a strong note always seemed to elude me.
Why is it that sometimes starting something is more difficult than finishing it? I am very organized in my job and love completing tasks. I love making lists, not only to keep track of what I need to do, but also for that sense of satisfaction when I cross them out. But I occasionally find myself sitting at my desk feeling totally unmotivated to do what I know (and have spelled out) what needs to be done. Eventually I get to work, but making that first step can be more difficult than making the final one.
Is it not knowing how to start or is it plain old procrastination?
Finishing strong is important, but so is starting strong. When I was teaching poomsae (taekwondo forms) I would sternly tell my students that their ready stance (legs straight with toes forward, strong fists in front of the belt) was just as important as the rest of the form. I didn’t want to see any dead, glassy eyes, limp hands, or duck feet. If they went to tournaments the judges would most certainly be looking a that. Our beginning stance is our first impression. Focus and determination happen when you’re standing still.
Maybe finishing a task is easier because we’ve had some time to build confidence from our successes. We’ve had a chance to try things out, maybe even learn from our mistakes. Maybe the expectations on ourselves are too high at the beginning. We think there won’t be any mistakes or setbacks. We don’t think we’ll lose the game. Going into the unknown is scarier than conquering the familiar.
I don’t think I have the final solution to this conundrum, even as a VERY CLEAR (and impatient) “J” in the Myers-Briggs world. It can be helpful, if time allows it, to ease into tasks. Drink some coffee, journal, catch up on news, do whatever pleasant distractions you need to do to get them out of your system. Procrastination happens to everyone, and sometimes the best thing to do is just get it out of your system.
After a little while of working on a task, I find myself picking up momentum and completing what I’d been dreading getting started. This happens a lot with writing projects at work. I feel like I have writer’s block, but after I force myself to get started without the high expectation of finishing it immediately I churn out something that’s pretty good. Letting myself relax when I get started (but with focus and determination) often leads to a strong finish.
So maybe that’s the key–just relax and start. Do SOMETHING. Do ANYTHING. And try to do it well. Trust yourself to do it well. You’ll get to the end in no time.
The Poomsae Series is back! I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write individual posts for the Taeguk forms I’ve been learning (I was trained in Palgwe at my old dojang), but they’ve grown on me in the past few weeks. I’ve started to appreciate the individual experiences of learning and practicing the forms rather than just memorizing movements as part of a set. Now that I’ve gotten to know the forms better I can experience them and express them on a deeper level.
This past week I learned my final form of the Taeguk collection (gotta catch em all!) and the thirtieth in my overall repertoire. On Tuesday one of my instructors walked me and another much younger black belt through Taeguk Yuk Jang (6), and to be honest, we were all a little turned around. This form amps up the challenge to anyone trying to learn or re-learn it, even for those familiar with the Taeguk patterns.
As I did with other Taeguk forms, I first tried teaching myself Taeguk 6 with YouTube videos and reassuring myself that I’d get detailed corrections from my instructors in class.
Learning this form via video was a big NOPE for me. I knew IMMEDIATELY that I would need step-by-step help with Taeguk Yuk Jang. After unsuccessfully trying to follow what I saw in the video, I closed my YouTube app and planned on asking an instructor to teach me that form the first opportunity I had.
I like this form for its sheer weirdness. The lower level Taeguks seem to build on each other, and then right when you get comfortable there’s this funky form that blows everything up. This short but complicated form yanks you out of the trusty floor pattern and throws in weird blocks, roundhouse kicks (which are seen nowhere else in Taeguk or anywhere in Palgwe), and funny directional changes…kinda like some of the higher level black belt forms. And then, as if it were a dream, you get back to a sense of normalcy with Taeguks 7 and 8.
You literally pause in the middle of this form. It’s like you’re stopping, assessing where you are in space, and then figuring you might as well get back into the weirdness and work your way through to the end, first retracing your steps and then changing your path entirely. Taeguk Yuk Jang is not quite the mindf*ck that Keumgang was the very first time I was taught that form, but it is a delightfully frustrating puzzle of a poomsae.
Like Palgwe Yuk Jang, its Taeguk sister denotes a change in level and responsibility for the taekwondo student. After this form you are no longer beginner or intermediate. You are advanced, and that comes with a new set of expectations. Things are getting REAL. Red belt, like Ned Stark’s proverbial Winter, is coming.
When I did my meditation on the form Palgwe Yuk Jang I had the same experience learning it as I did more recently with the Taeguk form: everything seemed comfortable and normal in the beginning, and then BAM! Part of life is acknowledging that things change, and I am changed by experiencing this form. Both Yuk Jang forms have pauses, changes, and offer new perspectives.
I offer the same sentiment about Taeguk Yuk Jang that I did for Palgwe Yuk Jang: “A pause can be a moment of decision and a precursor to change. Those frozen moments in time, whether it’s a second or a year, allow us to examine the facts, listen to our deeper intuition, and choose the next step, whether it is continuing on the same path or foraging a new one entirely.”
“Your form looks REALLY good,” said B, a sweet, friendly and very tenacious blue belt/red stripe during a break in her taekwondo class. She added an emphatic nod and I smiled and bowed in her direction.
I had shown up early to the dojang to warm up and practice forms while I waited for the later class to begin. I usually try to get there about 40-45 minutes early partially to warm up my otherwise fairly sedentary body (thank you, office job that pays for my taekwondo classes) and to practice the 29 forms I had committed to memory. Practicing forms is a great way to shift my mental and physical focus from the outside world and the rest of my life into the pure taekwondo black belt zone. It was nice to know that my efforts had not gone unnoticed.
B and I go way back. She was a student at my old dojang until yellow belt. She was tiny, fierce, and serious. She LOVED our previous Master’s stern style of teaching and attention to detail and followed his every precise move with her big brown eyes. Eventually she warmed up to me too, ha ha. B transitioned to our new school in early 2018 and was thriving at tests and tournaments. I finally followed her to our new taekwondo home at the end of the year. Back to our conversation…
“Thanks, B,” I said, shaking her hand after our bow. “I was doing Palgwe Yi Jang. Remember that? It’s the second form you learned when you were a yellow belt.” I did a quick high block/kick/punch combo to jog her memory. Secretly I was very pleased that she took the time to observe, pass judgment, and give me feedback on my form. Black belts are students too.
“Oh yeah,” she said with a laugh. “I kind of remember it.” I gave her the standard black belt instructor you-should-be-practicing-all-your-forms-including-the-Palgwes-you-remember lecture and sent her back to her class.
I have no idea what form B thought I was doing. Maybe she thought I was doing a higher level Taeguk form that she hadn’t learned yet. Maybe she thought I was doing a black belt form. I was even caught off guard a little that she was impressed by what was seemingly a “simple” form.
Then I realized how sharp her eye was. Whatever I was doing, B thought I was doing it well. The thing is, I wasn’t trying to “look good.” I was just doing a form the way I do forms–taking it seriously and giving it my best effort. It didn’t matter that it was a low level color belt form. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t a form that is currently taught at my new dojang. It didn’t matter whether anyone was watching. I love doing forms, and apparently the love shows.
There are all things we naturally do well. Sometimes we like doing them, and other times we do things (well) out of obligation. You can tell when someone is doing something they love. They seem at ease, relaxed, happy. They’re charming and impressive. They draw us in with their charisma. It’s nice once in a while to get an outsider’s perspective, that fresh set of eyes watching us when we do something we love. It’s a snapshot in time of being in our element, of being the highest version of who we really are.
We won’t always have the watchful eyes of a child or a friend or loved one when we do the things we love. That’s the time to appreciate, revel in the moment, and let yourself be fully immersed in doing something that just feels so damn good.
I did it! I got a tattoo! And of course I wrote a blog post about it!
So…THIS happened on Friday. After many years of being fascinated by tattoos, months of gearing up the courage to actually get one, and weeks of planning with my tattoo artist, I am now the proud owner of this beautiful black belt tattoo. My tattoo artist was fabulous: patient, caring, as clean and cautious and precise as a surgeon, and a talented fine artist who brought my concept to life.
It didn’t hurt; at one point I felt pretty sleepy and zoned out like I do when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Now as it heals it just feels like a minor sunburn. It helped that I psyched myself out with memories of my most painful physical therapy sessions and a recent eyebrow threading (ouch!!) to give myself some perspective on pain. It felt like a flu shot at first and then nothing. Seriously. I credit my tattoo artist with her light touch and the fact that my upper arm had enough muscle and fat to absorb all the stabbing…so much stabbing…so much…
About the tattoo itself: I didn’t want to be one of those white people with Asian lettering tattooed on me, but I suppose one can make an exception here since I study a Korean martial art. I wanted the belt to have some realism and not look like a flat “cause” ribbon (sounds terrible but you know what I mean). If I was going to get a taekwondo black belt embedded in my skin it might as well look like one. The Korean lettering on the left is my name, and the lettering on the right is “tae kwon do”….I hope. The lotus was chosen both to feminize the tattoo (I can’t resist a pretty flower) and serve as a sly shoutout to the symbol of the Jidokwan school of taekwondo, which is what I study.
The Jidokwan symbol of persistence is encircled by eight petals of what some sources say is a water lily and other sources claim to be a lotus. I’m sticking with the lotus for its connection to Buddhism’s Eight Fold Path (read linked article above for more details), which sounds great to me in theory although wrangling my tightly-wound and also unruly mind around the Path is sometimes very difficult.
One source states that the eight Jidokwan petals represent the “Spirit of Eight Manners of Justice:”
Conduct with justice
….Church, I’m tryin’. It helps to have the reminder.
I didn’t get this tattoo just because I have a black belt. I could have done that three years ago when I was awarded my first degree black belt. I got this tattoo because I AM a black belt, and I wanted a permanent reminder etched into my skin for a number of reasons:
I don’t want to take for granted what taekwondo has done for me, even if I have to stop training entirely at some point. I can’t take sole credit for the big successes I’ve had in the past few years. I did that with taekwondo. About eight years ago I started on a journey to heal some wounds, change some damaging habits, and make meaningful discoveries about myself. I had things along the way to help me, and I did improve, but when I returned to taekwondo in 2013 my progress SOARED. Taekwondo was the key to making overarching and long-lasting change. It gave me confidence, mental fortitude, strength in the face of adversity, perseverance in the face of challenge, and a really strong jump snap kick.
I want a reminder that I can be a confident and capable badass woman. I have not always let people treat me well. Like most of us unfortunately I’ve been verbally and physically harassed by people close to me, by random strangers, by colleagues….I’ve watched other people I cared about be mistreated and didn’t step in to help. I’ve experienced and allowed this poor treatment as an adult, as a professional, as a taekwondo student, and even as a black belt. I was too quiet. I didn’t speak up or act out. Granted, most people I’ve encountered in life have been nice or at least neutral, but it’s really easy to be pulled down by those memorable assholes. I let the memories haunt me and shame eat at me. No more. The boundary is clearly drawn. Protecting myself emotionally and mentally is even more important to me than physically defending myself. I am making a promise to stand up for myself and for those I care about.
Remember that blog post I wrote about “giving zero f-cks by forty?” I meant it, and damnit it’s HARD!! So hard I had a reminder inked into my skin! I want to be chill and content and let all the BS in life (and there’s a lot) just roll past me. I want to shift my attention away from situations or people that don’t give me joy towards those that do. That adrenaline rush in a sparring match, that cool feeling of resolve as I practice poomsae, the pleasure of watching a student do something well, the high I get and boundless sense of peace I feel from practicing what I love…I want to feel that all the time. I want to flow with life and not get too hung up on the past or the projected outcomes. I’m getting there. I’m making progress every day.
Shortly before my tattoo session I was texting with my mom. I didn’t know whether I was more nervous about the pain or the permanence. She replied: “I got married to Dad and got pregnant with you and [your brother]. We all make things of permanence. Some are good and easy. But we have to deal with the decisions no matter what.”
I have made choices that have brought me sadness and success. For the most part, my decisions have created a pretty happy life for me.
I am a black belt in name and in spirit. I will never stop being a black belt, and I will never stop benefiting from what taekwondo has given me.
A little bit of history about poomsae (forms): The preference for Taeguk rose alongside the focus of taekwondo turning to sport taekwondo, or Olympic style sparring. Stances are higher and shorter, and the movements are much simpler than the Palgwe forms. I also think some practitioners just didn’t want to associate with the similarity Palgwe forms had with karate and in turn the unpleasant history Korea shared with Japan. But what do I know.
I don’t like Taeguk forms, but it seems like the rest of the taekwondo world does, and if I want to continue my career as a black belt, instructor, and potential poomsae competitor I’ll have to put them into my repertoire at some point. I mean, white zinfandel is loved by lots of people for some reason even though it’s terrible. But it’s popular enough that I have to deign to walk by it in every grocery or liquor store. White zinfandel is cheap, common, but does the job if you need to get buzzed.
I need some more poomsae stimulation. The 22 forms I know just aren’t enough to get me high (We have an eight-pack of keebons my grandmaster created in case ya’ll are trying to count. Plus four black belt forms and the outliers “Koryo One” and Nopei). I’m a poomsae-aholic. I need that buzzzzzzz of a fresh form. Guess I might as well open up my mind and learn a whole new set.
The business of taekwondo is becoming more and more like a corporation. There are more hoops that coaches, referees, school owners, and instructors have to jump through. If USAT or Kukkiwon decides everyone is going to dye their hair purple and kick while standing upside down, then by God we’d better all do it, and for a fee we have the privilege to be certified in purple hair and upside down kicking. I know the intention is consistency, and we all appreciate that, but when does too much control in the name of consistency impeded individual talent?
And wouldn’t you know, I’m experiencing some of this encouragement to conform in other areas of my life. The department I work in has greatly widened its reach across my large company, and understandably, the powers that be are trying to systemize processes and standardize services. My little team of experienced and creative consultants can no longer make completely autonomous decisions in our little princedoms. Services we deliver must be approved, sanctified, and tracked. It makes sense, but sometimes the red tape can blind us to the immediate and unique needs of our clients.
On the flip side, I do appreciate a more structured approach to what my team does. I don’t feel pressured to say yes to every request, and I don’t have to create everything from scratch. I get what I bargain for by working for a large organization: a nice salary with great benefits, and I have to play along with the decisions that are made. I can live with that.
I’m pretty open about my Palgwe snobbery. #sorrynotsorry. Palgwe forms are intricate, beautiful, strong, and pretty badass when it comes to self-defense. I think Taeguk forms, on the other hand, are boring and unnecessarily illogical. Why yes, of course when I turn to face an opponent who’s coming at me from my blind left side I’m going to block with my BACK HAND while leaving my torso open even though my little right arm is too short to effectively reach whatever kick or hand strike is coming towards me. Oh my goodness it makes perfect sense. And I feel so stable in this walking stance, which one of my masters used to call “broken knee stance.” Why, I feel like I could kick or jump out of the way or…wait, no I don’t.
My students still do Palgwe forms at tournaments. Sometimes they win gold because technique speaks for itself no matter what style of form they’re doing (I’ve seen plenty of crappy snap kicks in both styles), and other times they are at the mercy and bias of judges who are openly anti-Palgwe. I’ve been told by other instructors, judges, and referees that we need to change our ways at our dojang if we want to have any chance of doing well at tournaments. For now though it seems we’ll be that rogue school sticking with Palgwe because (1) tradition, duh (2) they’re excellent for teaching self-defense (3) my Korean grandmaster has over 60 years of experience, so I’m good with his direction and (4) Palgwes look really cool, and I feel like a gangster when I go all out with them.
Okay, okay, I’ll give you this: I do find myself standing taller when I spar than when I’m doing other taekwondo-y stuff (but not with completely straight legs). And during sparring I do end up doing some weird instinctual blocking based on whatever is flying at my body or my head. But look, I’m 5’3” and have zero interest in nor the build for sport taekwondo. I’m looking for practical ways to beat the crap out of someone, and Palgwes provide a good opportunity to practice that. And when I’ve taught forms I’ve been able to make references between those forms and sparring on many occasions. But that’s just me, that’s just my style. I like the way I do things, and I’m good at it.
Same thing at work. Sometimes I go rogue. I can’t wait on my “USAT” to make a long drawn-out decision when I have “students” who need my help right now. I have to rely on what I know, what my strengths are, and what I think is best for the people I serve. But, as with the politicized realm of taekwondo, I have adapt to the balance of what I can do as a creative individual and what the needs and direction are of my organization. I have to rely on others rather than being completely independent, and I have to adjust to new processes. My ultimate goal is helping people through the work I do and making as much money as I can to support myself (hey, I’m an independent woman, and that involves looking out for number One)…so I can play nice. The work I do is not life-saving (I leave my clients to do that) so it’s not worth worrying about.
I can still be me, but I have to also be very good at playing the political professional game and drinking the “company white zinfandel.” (And as a side note, “drinking the Kool-Aid” is such a horrible, morbid, and overused reference. Real people died. Let’s lose that expression and stick with white zinfandel.) I’m looking at it as a learning experience, an interesting challenge, and something I might as well get good at if I want to keep up with the changing times.
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.
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.
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…]
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.
“Um…” A tall teenage yellow belt tentatively raised his hand. I had just walked him and his fellow yellow belts through their new form, Palgwe Il Jang. As newly promoted students they had just started learning this form and were still getting the hang of it.
“Isn’t the middle part supposed to be this?” He stepped into a back stance and did a double knife-hand high block.
“Ah yes it is! Thank you for pointing that out! Sorry about that, guys. Black belts make mistakes too!” I said with a laugh. Apparently I had told them to do a low block in a front stance rather than the correct move, a double knife-hand high block in a back stance.
“Black belts have to practice too,” piped up a five-year-old, nodding his head gravely. I told him that once, and now he takes every opportunity to remind me.
To date I have learned 20 forms and even more self-defense techniques. As I’ve moved up in the ranks it’s become easier to store more complicated patterns and techniques in my body and brain, but once in a while all those forms swirling around in my head can lead to errors.
The thing is, I had no clue I had done the wrong thing until the student pointed it out. I didn’t question myself when I was leading the students through the form, nor did I hesitate when I changed directions and threw blocks and strikes. I was confident, damnit! My misplaced front stance and low block looked pretty darn good: my front knee was bent in a 90 degree angle, my back leg was straight and sturdy, my shoulders and hips were square, and I know that low block would have worked against an attack. It just wasn’t the correct step in the form. Oops.
I’m glad it happened. It not only showed me that I can still be confident when I mess up, but it also gave the teenage yellow belt a chance to speak up with confidence as well.
We all make mistakes. We screw up, forget things, do the opposite of what we intended, and that’s just part of being human. There’s no way around it. What helps is a dose of confidence. That’s not the same as arrogance. I don’t think I’m any better than the lower ranking students in class, and my job is to serve them, not the other way around. Confidence means you respect, love, and trust yourself and have a positive outlook on your own capabilities. There is SO much I still have to learn nearly two years into my gig as a black belt and so many fundamental techniques I need to tweak. Even when I screw up and do the wrong thing or teach the wrong thing, though, my heart is in the right place. I’m confident in my abilities and trust myself to do the right thing (most of the time).
If I don’t trust myself how can the students trust me?
You’re not always going to get it right (or heaven forbid, perfect) the first time. You still have to keep moving. In the martial arts world, sparring is the perfect laboratory for trying out new and different things—sometimes what you choose to do works, and other times it doesn’t, but you have to keep moving. Failure, whether big or small, can teach us valuable lessons we’d never gain if we stayed on a steady, unwavering, but also unchanging and kinda boring plateau forever. Mistakes are going to happen so you might as well brush it off and not let them rattle your confidence. If you fail, do it with grace and make your second (or third or fourth) attempt even stronger.
I still think my low block and front stance looked good.