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.

Screw Up With a Smile

right-direction

“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.

“Yes?”

“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.

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 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.

I Can Do This With My Eyes Closed

Tightrope-walking-blindfolded

“Uh-oh, I know what we’re going to do,” said a teenage black belt in a half-groan/half-giggle. It was red and black belt class, our late night class after sparring. My fellow red belts and bo dans abandoned me after sparring, so all that was left were me, the teenager who never comes to sparring (ahem!), and an older man who got his black belt last year.

My instructor’s face lit up as he steepled his fingers together and positioned us in a wide diagonal line across the floor. “I want you to do Koryo One again,” he said after we had just completed the form as a warm-up. “But this time I want you to do it with your eyes closed.”

My eyes danced furiously under my closed lids, trying desperately to make sense of what was going on. I ignored them and focused on breathing deeply, shifting my weight, and making sure I stayed low in my stances. I opened my eyes and felt refreshed and excited, as if I’d gotten to know the form on a much deeper level.

Then we did the two other red belt forms, and that’s when things started to fall apart. I began to feel wobbly and unsure. I lost my balance, shuffled timidly and stiffly through stances, and somehow inexplicably flung myself into the left side wall and ballet barre during the part of the Palgwe Pal-jang that is directed straight towards the back of the room. (Notice that my instructor did nothing to stop me, probably because he was laughing too hard).

“What the heck just happened?” I shouted when I stumbled into the end of the form and blinked open my eyes. Perhaps my attempt at Koryo One was successful because it was the first form I’d ever practiced with my eyes closed, and I had no expectations. Perhaps it was successful because unlike the other forms, it only goes back and forth on the vertical axis. The individual strikes and blocks are complex, but the movement pattern is simple. (Koryo One is also the only form that I can fully do in my hallway without modifying it or running into anything….hey, I was doing laundry and I was bored.)

Perhaps my deteriorating performance of the forms Chil-jang and Pal-jang was because I started to lose confidence and doubt my own abilities.

My last post offered the concept of trusting ourselves when our worlds get turned upside down. It could be the same challenge or something very similar we’ve faced before, but the perspective has changed, and that makes it scary. Sometimes we might be facing a challenge with limitations such as time, money, resources, support, or one of our senses. If we get too wrapped up in dwelling on what we can’t control then we will end up emotionally paralyzed and will run into even more walls, figuratively or literally. The trick is to focus on what we can control and what we can do, no matter the limitations or obstacles we face.

Tricks Up Your (Dobok) Sleeve — The Poomsae Series Part 9

An ace up the sleeve  (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

An ace up the sleeve (Credit Image: Image Source/ZUMA Press)

“It’s a short form. If you can do palgwe pal-jang you can do this form,” one of the masters said as he walked me through the form I will need to perform when I test for black belt.

Famous last words.

A few weeks ago we learned Koryo 1. UPDATE: Thanks to an update from reader Jon (see video link in the comment below), this form actually exists out there, albeit with some minor changes. It’s not used very often. There is a universal form called Koryo, which we’ll also have to learn (in our school it will be Koryo 2), but for now until first dan we have this additional form. No pressure, right?

This form has a surprise around every corner. I haven’t thought “WTF??” this often when learning a form in a long time. It has the same funny-strange creepiness of oh-jang and the same diva-like flair as yuk-jang. While it doesn’t quite match the anger of chil-jang or the cool complexity of pal-jang it’s full of dirty fighting and unconventional combinations. It starts with two nose strikes (or they could be throat or eye punches depending on where you aim), a knee to the face punctuates the middle, and it is topped off by a flying snap kick to the head at the end. Ouch.

Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty fun. It keeps you on your toes even though we’re not supposed to be on our toes except for this one part at the end and…never mind. I actually wish it were longer so I could keep “playing” in it. Pal-jang seems to take an eternity, but like yuk-jang, this form is over in a flash.

If a form could be humorous, this is the one. Oh, you think I’m backing off and retreating? Nope, how’dya like a knee to your face, BAM! HA HA! Oh, you think you can sneak up on me because my back is turned? Nope, gotcha with a knife-hand block, BAM! HA HA HA! Looks like I’m slowing down, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it?? Doesn’t it—BA-BAAAM!! Two kicks to your face, sucka!

So what’s to learn from this form? As the great George Strait sang, “you’ve got to have an ace in the hole, a little secret that nobody knows.” Whether it’s a hidden talent you use when you really need to shine, a few thousand dollars in your “F You” account (yes, that’s a real thing), or a few dirty moves you can pull in a street fight, that little ace in the hole can boost your confidence, maintain your sense of humor, and remind you that everything is going to be OK if you just trust yourself.