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

punch-pow

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!

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.

Eight Unexpected Things I Learned From a Taekwondo Tournament

sparring head shot

Y’all know this is your favorite part of watching a tournament. Boom!

Recently I had the privilege of coaching some talented kids at at taekwondo tournament. Thankfully my chief instructor has given me many opportunities to teach and coach in class and at other competitions, so I felt prepared. What I didn’t expect were some of the things I would learn from the experience:

  1. Relax and enjoy the ride. There are delays. And then there are more delays. There are discrepancies in judging. There are panicked searches for misplaced equipment. There are more delays. It’s best to just settle in and get ready for a very very very long day. Patience is key, and humor is a sanity saver.
  2. You will become a “kid person,” whether you naturally are one or not. I’m not naturally a kid person. I wasn’t even comfortable around children when I was a child, but somehow in class and at tournaments my mothering instinct kicks in, and suddenly I can relate to the kids from my own school and even kids from other schools. I’m protective, I joke with them, I enjoy teaching them, and I’m very proud of them. I learn from them every day…and then I hand them back to their parents.
  3. I’m a taekwondo purist, i.e., I can’t deal with demos. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in full support of taekwondo demo teams. I certainly couldn’t do half the things they were doing…but I just couldn’t reconcile the drill team type of dancing and overuse of the song “Gangam Style.” If you want to do a demo give me some well-coordinated blocks, some kicks, some breaking, some self defense, and a few well-placed yells and I’m good. It can be done very well without the cheesy music, the goofy dancing, and for heaven’s sake, the FREAKING RIBBON TWIRLING. Otherwise get back to the regularly scheduled tournament. I wanna see someone get kicked in the head.
  4. You will be on the edge of your seat. Who’d have thought grade school kids would have me gripping my chair and staring wild-eyed like a madwoman. We had two tie breakers with both our little green belt star students: one of them had to do his form three times against different kids before he was awarded a well-deserved gold. Another, after two rounds of dealing with me screaming at him to “Get in!! Stay close!! Do combinations!!” finally won the sparring match with a tie-breaking point. Whew! That made my entire week.
  5. Sportsmanship is classy, and bragging is trashy, no matter the sport. Humility is a tenet of martial arts. Most of the time this is maintained throughout a tournament, and sometimes it’s not, and that is truly disappointing. Anyone who raises their fist and does a snotty little cheer after scoring a point in the middle of a damn sparring match deserves a well-timed kick to the chest. A true martial artist practices grace and respect, even in the heat of competition. Life is too short to be a jerk. We’re all in this big sparring match called “life” together.
  6. Your students will surprise you. Some competitors crumble under pressure. Some rise to the occasion. I am always amazed at their determination and ability to tap into their taekwondo spirit and do things I’ve never seen them do before.
  7. You will surprise yourself.  You will find yourself being present and entirely focused on another person rather than being caught up in your own thoughts, worries, insecurities, or doubts. There’s a special kind of joy in watching others work hard and succeed that keeps me energized for hours.
  8. A hot dog from the snack bar tastes like manna from heaven if you’ve been pacing around exhausting yourself all morning. This needs no explanation.

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.

Commit, Even if You Look Stupid (I’m Good, I’ll Just Watch From Back Here)

committed sign

“What’s the next part of this form?” my instructor asked, swiveling his head around and looking straight at me.  We had just passed what I call the “jazz hands” portion of Palgwe Sam-jang, the green belt form that we were reviewing that night.

“Ki-yahp and punch!” I shouted back. “No, wait! It’s THIS!!” I crowed triumphantly, whirled around to land in a deep front stance, and slammed down a low block with a sharp satisfied exhale.

“Is she right?” my instructor asked as everyone remained perched in a frozen back stance (except of course for me in all my front stance/low block glory). The other students furrowed their brows, looked down at the floor with embarrassment, and mumbled “Uh…maybe?”

“It’s THIS!” he said, turning to his right, shifting into a front stance, and popping up a high block. We all groaned.

“Oh so close!” I laughed and adjusted my arms.

My instructor trotted to the front of the room and said, “I heard a lot of ‘uh, maybes’ and ‘I don’t knows’ when I asked you if she was right. Commit to something! Don’t do things halfway, at least not in here. Being on the fence means you don’t have an opinion and you’re waiting to see how things work out. That’s OK in the short term, but in the long term it can be dangerous.” He shuffled his feet and straightened his knees into a weak imitation of a back stance.

“You see?” he said, opening his palms and spreading his fingers, “If your stances are halfway now you’ll develop bad habits, and they won’t be effective later.” He shifted back and forth between stances. “You need the strength of front stance,” he said as he sank into his right knee, “and the speed of back stance.” He shifted his weight to his back leg and raised his fists as if ready to spar. “Commit to your stance, even if it’s wrong! I’d rather see you do a wrong stance all the way than the right one halfway!”

I smiled and thought, “At least I was committed to my wrong low block!”

As he continued to weave through the lines of students, correcting stances and fine-tuning blocks I thought about the concept of commitment. Words can carry the weight of the world, but they can also be tossed around casually like pieces of meaningless garbage. I have been hurt both by taking someone’s words too seriously or not taking them seriously enough.  A person’s true character can more often be seen through their actions. Do they follow through on their promises? Do they give and serve? Do they right what was wrong? Committed actions show that we have confidence in our opinions and the choices we’ve made.

The only time I’ve heard an example of how “being on the fence” was the the best choice was an old tale my grandma liked to tell about a distant uncle who was a child during the Civil War. He was leaning up against a fence, chewing on a piece of grass and looking at the clouds, when a posse of soldiers came barreling up the dirt road to his house.
“Boy, what side are you on?” the leader of the gang snarled.

“I’m not on any side” replied my relative slowly, shifting his weight on the wooden post. “I’m on my belly.”