My billiards partner glanced up at me as he said this and then narrowed his eyes at the pool table as he adjusted his stance. I had suggested he take an easier and more straight shot, but he was focused on long-term strategy. He wanted to set himself up to get multiple shots in one play. This involved taking a more difficult shot first so the cue ball would end up where he wanted it. Continue reading “Playing the Long Game in Pool, Taekwondo, and in Life”→
On April 15 my blog turns FIVE years old! Since April 15 is a Monday, and many people will either be either working or madly rushing to submit their income tax filings I thought I’d treat my readers to some weekend bingeing. Happy early birthday to the blog and happy reading to you…
Wow! Five years have gone by in a flash, and so much has happened in my life both inside and outside the dojang. What an amazing five years it’s been, and I am so thankful to all of you who have read, commented, and encouraged me along the way.
Usually for my anniversary posts I’ll pick my ten favorite articles from the past year…but since 2019 is a milestone year in more ways than one, this is going to be a MEGA BEST-OF POST, YAAAYYYY!
If you want to dig into the blog, I recommend checking out The Poomsae Series (all about forms) and also spend some time in 2016 and 2017, where I did a lot of writing and experienced a lot of growth and insight as a black belt. If you want to get depressed, read most of 2018 or just skip that and put on your Morrissey/Smiths playlist on a rainy day. 🙂
For your reading pleasure, I’ve selected five posts from each of the past five years. Enjoy, share, and enjoy some more. Thank you very much for your continued support.
2014 – The birth of the blog and my growth as a taekwondo color belt and practitioner. The Big Bang of Little Black Belt – I kind of wish I’d named this blog TaeKwonDiva, but I went with the Little Black Dress joke. #noregrets (mostly) I Traded Magical Thinking For Martial Arts – Reality never felt so good. Can We Pause For a Change – My mom will probably get mad at me for saying this because she’s a private person, but one day she showed me a folded and well-worn piece of paper in her purse. It was the final paragraph from this blog post. I felt really touched that my writing meant so much to her that she would always keep it close. Are You In? – Five years later, and my answer is the same. I’m in. Bring. It. On. It’s Hard to be Depressed When You’re Doing Duckwalks – I’ve told the “stair step” anecdote many times in classes I’ve taught at work. Always get smiles.
I can always count on taekwondo poomsae (forms) to have a calming, focusing effect on my mind and body. Forms were very much needed yesterday when I was feeling out of sorts.
Yesterday I learned the hard way that reintroducing black coffee back into my body after avoiding it for about a year thanks to a fun digestive illness needs to be done in relatively small doses. After a large cup of coffee, a cup of tea, a venti cappuccino from Starbucks, and another half cup of coffee later my body was shaking and my heart was fluttering. I swear for a moment I had double vision and nearly missed a step when I was walking to the front door of my taekwondo school.
On nights when I have class I usually arrive to the dojang about 40 minutes early to warm up and run through my forms. Since my brain and body were feeling scattered I decided to start with my familiar Palgwe color belt forms rather than the eight Taeguk forms I still hadn’t quite mastered. Okay, this will be easy. I can do this. I began with Palgwe Il Jang, the lowest ranking color belt form, turning to my left and executing a low block in a front stance.
Then I did an outside block with my back hand without stepping forward.
I gave my reflection in the mirror I was facing an exasperated glare. I was caught red-handed.
Blocking with the back hand is a signature move in Taeguk forms, much to my dismay and that of my fellow Palgwe snobs. I thought about texting my former Master what I had just done because I thought it was funny. He would either laugh along with me or threaten to punch me. I decided to just get my head on straight and do Palgwe Il Jang the correct way, starting with a low block and then stepping FORWARD to do an outside-to-inside block with my leading hand just as God and logic intended.
As I flowed through my trusty Palgwe forms, the oddity “Koryo One,” and transitioned into Taeguk color belt forms I noticed shifts in my thought processes and little cues I gave myself. Once I got into the groove of the forms I’d been practicing and teaching for years it felt effortless. When I switched to Taeguk, however, my awareness and physical decisions slowed down and required more forethought. It was like I had shifted from speaking my native English to a different language.
I used to be fairly fluent in Spanish. I took four years of Spanish in college and attended a language immersion institute for two weeks in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I loved the language: speaking it, writing it, reading it. I never quite got the hang of being able to think in Spanish, though. When I was having a conversation I was always rapidly translating back and forth in my head and had to rein in my individual linguistic peculiarities and idioms. I felt like a bit of my personality had been washed out in order for me to get my message across efficiently. Once in a while I would have a brain scramble and I’d mix the languages together as I did when I threw a Taeguk move into my first Palgwe form of the evening.
Trying to speak a second language might have limited my ability to fully express myself, but it did make me a better listener and forced me to be mindful about the words I chose to say.
I now know thirty forms, but I wouldn’t say I’m fully fluent in all of them yet.*
Practicing my Palgwe forms reminded me of when I was on a roll with a writing project at work or giving a presentation I’d given many times before. I felt intelligent and creative. As I practiced the black belt form Keumgang I caught myself giving myself not only corrections and cues I’d picked up from instructors but was also using my “instructor voice” on myself. Once in a while I might have a brain freeze, but I was quickly able to clearly articulate with my body and mind the full expression of the forms. By the time I got to the beautiful and elusive Nopei I felt like I was performing Shakespeare.
During my Taeguk forms I was reminded of my internal English/Spanish translation experiences. I had to be much more thoughtful and careful. I knew I was still “speaking” Taeguk with my Palgwe “accent” and had to fight myself on those tricky back hand blocks and unfamiliar walking stances. I had to think much more simply in order to perform what I had not quite yet memorized and hadn’t begun to fully explore. My taekwondo mind shifted from experienced black belt instructor to concentrating and still learning student. I had to listen to my body and my memory much more acutely and in a more steamlined way than I did with the forms I know so well.
I am building my fluency and confidence in Taeguk. On the other side of the training room some kids were asking an instructor about a knifehand block/elbow strike combo.
“Is this in Taeguk 4 or 5?” one of the students asked.
“It’s in 5,” I muttered aloud to myself without skipping a beat. Maybe I’m learning this new language faster than I give myself credit for doing.
Noticing the shift in thinking during my different sets of forms made me appreciate the beauty and complexity of language and conversation. Sometimes it’s our moment to let our personalities and talents shine as we wax poetic about a topic we’re passionate about, and other times it’s more appropriate to listen and very carefully choose what we’re going to say next. A skilled conversationalist knows when to do both. I hope at some point I can be as expressive with my Taeguk forms as I am with my Palgwe color belt forms and black belt forms. I also think I have the opportunity to slow down and mindfully choose and refine my techniques in the forms I’m much more familiar with.
By the time I’d gone through my forms for the evening I was sweating and panting. Thankfully my body had shaken loose the coffee jitters and fragmented focus, and my heart was now just pounding healthily from an athletic workout.
Now I was comfortable. I was speaking (and listening to) a language I love.
*If your’e keeping count: eight Palgwe, eight Taeguk, Koryo One, universal Koryo, Keumgang, Taebaek, Pyongwon, Nopei, universal Kibon One plus seven Kibons my former Grandmaster created
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.
Due to feeling ill, work deadlines, the inevitable siren song of TV and wine, and most recently heavy downpours, I’ve been out of taekwondo for about two weeks. Perhaps it’s for the best as I’ve needed some time off to sort out my feelings. After my last post I received a wonderful, heartfelt comment on my last post from a reader with the recommendation to take a little break (Thanks, Toby!). I always feel refreshed after a break from intense activities in my life whether it’s my job, exercise, taekwondo, or lately my efforts to secure a literary agent for my memoir. Soon I’ll return to class to see if it’s done me some good.
I’m in taekwondo limbo right now. I don’t want to be one of those people who did taekwondo for a while and then quit, leaving it in a compartmentalized box of my past. I don’t see myself stopping at second degree although that seems to be a typical pausing point for many black belts. I’m not sure how long my current training situation will continue or how I would adjust to something new. What I do know is that I can’t let go entirely, nor do I want to. I can’t get back what I had with my former school, but I can adjust and adapt and be creative about keeping taekwondo top of mind and an important part of my life.
That’s why after my ballet barre class at the gym, I did all my color belt through black belt forms. Quick reminder—my school does Palgwe forms rather than Taeguk, and you can read a description about each one in The Poomsae Series. We also have the rarely practiced “Koryo One,” which is learned at bo dan and “Nopei,” which is learned at fourth Dan (I talked my Master into teaching it to me last year.)
I kinda didn’t want to. It was raining outside, and I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home. I had to go to the bathroom. I was hungry. But I knew I needed to run through my forms to keep my mental and physical memory fresh. I knew I needed to do my forms just because.
As I moved through my stances, blocks, kicks, and strikes, I had an odd sense of both feeling something that was deeply ingrained and familiar and also a little shaky and unusual. I move in a very particular way when I do forms. It comes out when I’m striking, sparring, doing self-defense, etc., but that essence is more detailed and prominent when I’m doing a form. I’m certainly not used to doing these movements while I teach a class at work (I’m a corporate trainer), when I torture my core and legs in ballet barre class, and not really even in Body Combat class even thought I use that class as way to tweak my technique. The mindset is different. The mental presence is different.
I only spent about 15-20 minutes in the darkened gym aerobics room practicing my forms, but I felt reconnected to something that has been slipping away these past few months. I could see the way my body moved in clinging gym clothes as opposed to my loose doboks and was able to pick up on small details. I had quiet time to correct myself and refresh my memory. I stored away little nuggets of how I would teach (or more often than not, re-teach) these forms to my students.
I was doing taekwondo, and I didn’t need a school or a uniform or a belt to make it so. Running through my forms was a quick but powerful reminder that I may not practice and train taekwondo as frequently as I used to, but I can always keep it alive and thriving within 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.