TKD: A Way of Life

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Tournament Play

on DEC. / 28 / 2011 | 0 comments

By Paul Marsala


My daughter and I study Tae Kwon-Do together and recently participated in a tournament. She is currently a brown belt and has been studying a little more than a year and this was her first tournament experience. I am a veteran of the tournament scene going back to the mid-1980’s, but in all truth and fairness have not attended or participated in sport Tae Kwon Do in many years. Based on my observations limited to this event, it seems that much has changed and it is not necessarily that positive.


Now, I will say that there are no sour grapes here; we both walked away with first place trophies in our divisions and events. This was nice, but really we had no expectations of placing. This was more to benefit my daughter’s experience – win or lose did not matter. Nonetheless, I must offer some criticism, as the bias observed by many of the spectators and fellow competitors was quite obvious.


The event was sponsored by a single school in the area and, in truth, was a very well organized event. In fact, it was one of the best events that I have ever attended, at least as best as memory serves me. It should be no surprise that the bulk of competitors were from the organizing school, but there was a fair amount of representation from non-affiliated locations as well. Disappointing was that a very large proportion (if not all) of the referees were instructors or directly affiliated with the organizing school and master instructor! In fact, it became clear that many of the referees were also competitors. How does this work? Shouldn’t the referees be banned from competing at the very event where they are deciding winners and losers? How do they fairly judge each other especially, when they are from the same school? Granted, I have been away from competition for a long time and perhaps things have changed to such an extent that this is now the norm, but it seems incredibly compromised from a competitive and ethical standpoint. It would seem that a tournament organizer in the interest of fair competition for all that spent money on the registration fee would request an independent panel of judges (i.e., AAU) or require that each school participating supply at least one referee.


The bias became very clear when it came to selecting division-grand champion winners. In the two events that we participated and placed first, the grand champion in each class was ultimately a student (or worse still a ref) from the organizing school. This was evident in other events as well! It could be supported if the winner was clearly the best competitor, but when losing balance and stumbling in the eliminations round for poomse competitions meets with a grand champion trophy, there is definitely something wrong!


If this level of compromise is common these days, it is truly a sad testament. If it is more the exception, then it is encouraging that future events may be less biased. We should always strive to do the right thing!

Mook Yum (Meditation): Part 3, Meditation Practice Technique

on DEC. / 14 / 2011 | 0 comments


In the first two parts of this installment on Mook Yum (Korean for “Meditation”) we covered a cursory introduction in part one, followed by the benefits of practice in part two. This final installment is intended to provide you with the basic techniques to get started. If you are an instructor it is my sincere hope that you will minimally consider including meditation as a core part of the curriculum in your schools. If you were a student at a dojang that does not already incorporate meditation into the structure of class, then it would be my hope that you might consider respectfully asking your master instructor to include this practice and/or develop one of your own. As a person becomes established in a regular meditation practice you will discover for yourself the many benefits and also, that once learned, it becomes quite simple to practice anywhere, anytime.


Before we begin anything new, it is important to “normalize” our expectations. First, recognize the simple fact that our minds are extremely busy most, in not all of the time. In fact, they are like little thought factories with an unlimited overtime budget! Most of the thoughts that we have come from a sense of anxiety and fear born of self-destructive inner dialogue that occurs at subtle levels of awareness. As you start to quiet down mentally, these patterns will gain momentum and the chatter will increase substantially! This is entirely normal and also what causes most to give up before any benefit can be gained. These negative patterns of thinking and faultfinding feed off of your attention and when you refuse to give them your thought energy and instead make the choice to “let them be” they will become more vociferous in protest! The key is to let them arise, recognize them and then let them go. In time, the mind will become increasingly quiet and still while the gap between thoughts increases until the point that they stop entirely for long stretches of time. Meditation is not about struggling to concentrate on a particular sound or image. The more one fights, the more one gets trapped in the net of endless thoughts. The difficulty is not so much that thoughts occur – in fact, that is normal! The problem is that we get stuck on following them much like a dog catches a scent and follows it aimlessly across a field. Often what starts out as “I am hungry”, leads to “What should I have to eat” and ends up somewhere with “my life is difficult and I hate my job!” You know this is true! This is what Buddhists call the “Monkey Mind”; aptly named as such because it literally jumps all over the place.


A qualified meditation teacher is always the best guide, but there are also many books available. Here the practice is quite simple, but will get you off to a good start:


  1. Sit in a chair or on the floor in a comfortable position, spine straight
  2. Gently close your eyes and focus them without strain at the point between your eyebrows
  3. Forcibly exhale three times and then slowly allow your lungs to fill with fresh air
  4. Count each inhalation and exhalation as one breath cycle up to ten and then do the same from ten to one. When you find your thoughts wandering bring them back to the breath and counting.
  5. Step 4 should be repeated a minimum of 10 minutes morning and night increasing the duration up to 30 minutes or longer as time permits.

Mook Yum (Meditation): Part 2, Benefits

on NOV. / 28 / 2011 | 0 comments


Tae Kwon-Do is an art that was developed for self-defense and sport, but it would not be correct for it to solely be thought of as an arsenal of devastating kicks employed to quickly score a point on a fellow competitor in the ring or to subdue an attacker on the street. More importantly, whether it is Tae Kwon-Do, Kung Fu or Japanese Karate; Martial Arts training in its’ truest form, is a philosophy that stresses living our lives in peace and harmony. Unfortunately, these spiritual values are often overlooked in favor of the impressive physical skills of combat gained over years of training. It is my contention that the real value of Tae Kwon-Do rests in helping individuals tune in to and harness their natural, spiritual strength. Meditation is one such method of achieving this balance.


Ideally, meditation may be included as part of our training to “bookend” the beginning and end of a session: a way to clear the mind prior to class and a way to cool it down afterwards. At a somewhat superficial, albeit effective level, this practice may be defined as a state of concentration on some object of thought or awareness such as the breath or a sound, silently repeated and synchronized with the in and out breaths or both. Taekwon-Do certainly is not a religion (and neither is meditation), but with steady effort it will help to still and clarify the mind making it more relaxed, focused and alert. These are clear benefits to the martial arts indeed! Additionally, research is proving that learning to breathe properly is the secret to any sustained physical activity. Meditation helps this process of breath control without a doubt and in so doing that, it also helps one to channel the body's physical, mental and spiritual energy. Ongoing medical research is also suggesting that meditation, silent awareness, is now being promoted as adjunct, non-traditional therapies to assist in curing physical illness and reducing stress. Some benefits of practicing martial arts with a meditative focus include reduced emotional distress, increased confidence and a strengthened immune system.


We tend to mystify things from the East and the Martial Arts fall into this trap. Stories and exhibitions of legendary mental and physical feats only help to reinforce this concept. Perhaps, there are unscrupulous masters that would go so far as to suggest that studying the “arts” is a path to enlightenment! Maybe so, but really, anything that promotes being mindful can result in the same with enough of the right amount of effort and time. Be warned, there are many successful Tae Kwon Doists that are not enlightened by any stretch of the definition. However, apart from and/or to compliment a traditional seated practice, one can simply employ poomse as a form of moving meditation. The body follows given steps while the mind and breath let go and tune in to the moment. An evening of forms practice will leave nearly anyone with a calm, centered and peaceful feeling.


Part 3 will cover a simple seated meditation technique


Moom Yum (Meditation):Part 1: Introduction

on NOV. / 16 / 2011 | 0 comments

Mook Yum (Meditation): Part 1: Introduction


Training in the Martial Arts is as much spiritual and mental as it is physical. As in life, we should emphasize a balanced approach to our training in order to gain maximal benefit in all areas of life. That should always be the goal! Developing a consistent practice of meditation is one such avenue that helps us to grow into a more harmonious life. In this series, my hope is to encourage each reader to establish and/or restart their own regular meditation practice.


First, It is common for people to confuse meditation with concentration. Although the former can exert a positive influence on the latter the practices are not synonymous. Second, despite the fact that meditation has its’ roots in many religious traditions both of the East and West, it is very important to understand that, at its’ core, it truly is non-denominational. Boiled down to its’ essential meditation is mindfulness in practice and is equally applicable to religious contemplation as it is to our everyday lives in and out of the Dojang.


What is mindfulness? The definitions can vary, but in this context the word invokes a level of “awareness” that dips down into more subtle strata of our consciousness. With practice the mind stills, becomes less involved with itself, less bothersome and, in turn, more restful. In fact, an alternate term for meditation is “restful awareness”. A good metaphor to illustrate this is to imagine your consciousness as a vast ocean. Unfortunately, for most of us we spend much of our time on the surface level getting tossed about by turbulent mind waves and shifting tides of thought or in a word; “agitated”. We get through the day, but there is always that sense that something is not completely right or if all is going well, the next problem no matter how minor sends us into a tail spin of fear, worry and anxiety. The practice of meditation takes us to deeper levels of consciousness where the waters gradually become increasingly still until there is no movement. Ultimately, coming from a place of this acquired stillness we are able to see and examine more clearly the core of our ego and its’ thoughts, worries, obsessions, etc., as they occur and long before they surface. From this deep level of awareness and clarity it becomes possible to recognize these various energies for what they are and render them incapable of disturbing our outward balance.


Gaining this level of mastery is not only possible it is a big part of our training and should be pursued in earnest to make the complete Martial Artist. The consistent theme in many of my articles centers on Martial Artists being exemplary human beings in every possible manner and this would be no different. This level of development does not stop at the physical level and we must be compelled to be stellar examples of spirit, mind and body.


The next installment will cover the benefits of meditation for the Martial Artist and then we will get into actual practice techniques.

Defense of Self

on SEP. / 02 / 2011 | 1 comments

This evening we spent the last 15-minutes of class working through some of the pre-set self-defense patterns with students. In the past, we learned these “techniques”, but in a freer flowing manner that more realistically represented the way an actual street encounter may occur. By contrast, today’s learning environment is a little more controlled and foreign to me, but I get the concept that repetition assists in the development of muscle memory and provides a standardized measuring stick for which to gauge rank advancement. This is the physical practice of learning to protect one’s self, and it can come in useful in those rare instances where your safety is at risk.

However, unless you happen to be intent on provoking street conflicts in order to put your skills to the test on a regular basis, I believe that it makes more sense to examine the defense of one’s self on a more subtle level.  Consider Sun Tzu in the Art of War:

“ To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence”

Of course, in a physical confrontation this means to overcome any unwarranted aggression by strategically disrupting the normal sequence of events that escalates to a battle of fists. The objective is to walk away leaving all individuals unharmed, which typically means that you consciously give way at some level and thereby gain the higher ground. This is the “supreme” self-defense technique and requires a very high level of skill, self-discipline, control, focus and speed (of thought). When adrenaline runs high only a true master can walk away making the aggressor feel as though he was victorious when in fact, he or she lost. The true battle occurs within as we maintain control in a very high stress, volatile situation that can escalate quickly over some minor matter that is not worth the sweat, let alone serious, or worse still, lethal injury.

Not all confrontation is physical and it is not uncommon to realize that in a moment of flared tempers we can quickly find ourselves engaged in battles of words or behavior that creates harm to others. Perhaps, we even choose activities or behaviors and habits that are self-destructive as opposed to self-defensive. Possessing the skill and ability to gain positive control and mastery over our mental faculties and responses to situations, people and things is the purpose of our training. This is the level that we must strive for as we practice self-defense techniques on the mat. This type of mastery is the “supreme excellence” that Sun Tzu mentions.

Everyday, we battle against our own self-harming tendencies and the more victories we claim on that battlefield the less likely it is that we will ever find ourselves in those rare circumstances where a physical match of skill is the only way out. The more we win against ourselves the easier it becomes to defeat or altogether avoid those that seek to do us harm or injury. This is defense of self!

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