TKD: A Way of Life

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Traditional Martial Arts and MMA

on AUG. / 25 / 2011 | 0 comments

Recently, I visited the martial arts section of a local bookstore and what I found there was compelling in that the relative proportion of MMA titles to those of traditional Martial Arts books greatly favored the former! For me, this is somewhat disappointing as I am increasingly concerned that MMA, while valid in its’ own right, is displacing the traditional arts well beyond the bookshelves of America.  

From the perspective of sport and competitive fighting, I think that there is no question that MMA has rightly secured a solid position in the arena and by definition; it is clearly a fighting art. My purpose here is not to debate the validity of this relative newcomer to the field. That is already established. Rather, my focus here is on what the traditionalists are proactively doing (or better still, not doing) to remain relevant and competitively viable in the current environment. Physical ability and fighting prowess are important and central to what Taekwondo practitioners emphasize in their training, but you can get that at an MMA studio as well. The core styles are more than that and we need to get the word out and emphasize how we help to develop the whole person which, in turn, builds better families, communities, etc, It is sad to note that I have visited some Taekwondo schools that do not even teach the tenets as part of their curriculum! So what is the difference between them and us when the focus is the same and/or the lines of distinction are blurred?

You may have already determined that his is not going to be a post on why MMA is kryptonite to the traditional arts, why they are evil and must be damned! Competition is a good thing because it promotes evolution and progress so long as you are willing to be engaged! For example, I spoke with a friend and school owner this past summer that complained about how MMA centers seem to be filtering off students. It is easy to sympathize, but I also think that the onus of responsibility falls on the traditional martial arts instructors to work smarter and get the message out concerning the overall benefits that we impart. If enrollments are down at your dojang and you are sitting in the office waiting for your advertisements to generate phone calls you may not be fighting the good fight.

The more we reach out to the community in which we teach to add benefit the more we will distinguish ourselves from the MMA studio on the corner. For example, school and community outreaches that take the form of demonstrations and motivational talks on leadership, moral character, positive lifestyle choices, etc, stretch far beyond flashy kicks and fight techniques. This is just one form of becoming more competitive, but I think that the more we get back to our core values as traditional martial artists the more competitive and successful we will be in the long run. This, I think is a better strategy than fighting MMA on their own turf!

The Importance of Genuine Balance

on JUL. / 28 / 2011 | 0 comments

It is given that much of what I write about is focused on those experienced in the martial arts and, in particular, the various philosophies espoused therein. However, I believe that these weekly posts are equally applicable to each and every person regardless of whether they practice a martial art. In reality, we are all in this together and all members of the same Dojang (“school”). That is the intention.

This week, I would like to place focus on the subject of balance. This attribute, which we generally ascribe to the physical nature of our body and environment, is for the most part a learned skill that we have the potential to develop at much higher levels than we believe are possible. Any shortfall is mostly because at a certain point people begin to accept as their truth that balance is not achievable for the long haul. In reality, we lose and regain balance continuously, but retain the capacity to train our minds to sustain and regain it more frequently and rapidly. People that believe living a balanced life is possible tend to create more of the same. The opposite is also true.

We know physical balance in martial arts (or any other activity) when a technique is executed with precision, focus and control. It feels effortless even if only once and occurs as if whatever we are doing is done in slow motion and with complete awareness. In some instances we actually get a glimpse in our “mind’s eye” of hitting the target, whatever it may be, fractions of a second before it actually happens! This is the beginning of an attuned balance and at first, our attempts with a new movement are not always successful, but with time and practice harmonious motion in all areas of life is not only achieved; it becomes repeatable! This is critical!

There is an ongoing unconscious, natural unfolding of balance and harmony that occurs throughout all of nature. This is the activity that supports and dissolves life in all of its’ forms. It is the yin, yang. One of our goals as martial artists (and “lay” people alike) is to consciously align with these naturally harmonizing forces. Try to swim against the tide for too long and you will not get very far but will risk serious injury or worse!

Life flows with a tidal energy that carries us in a given direction and when you work against it the results are strikingly similar to the aforementioned example. However, when we move in harmony and with balance not only do we go further, but we are also better able to navigate the course and achieve what we desire.  This is true in self-defense, goal setting, achieving our maximal potential, quitting bad habits, etc. The more we fight against these natural rhythms, the more we lose harmony and create difficulty. Achieving genuine balance is about consciously giving way in order to get where we want!

Avoiding Cultural Confusion

on JUL. / 22 / 2011 | 0 comments

At the risk of creating offense, I am going to make the statement that some martial artists take practice too seriously! Yes, you heard me right some practitioners are way over the top. Of course, what we are learning requires discipline, focus, dedication and years of commitment and that is serious business. No question!

What is being conveyed here is more obliquely related to the art and focused directly on the culture from which it descends. I have been around the martial arts scene for 30-years and have made many observations in that amount of time. One of those perceptions has been the fact that some Western students often attempt to become the perfect practitioner by transforming himself or herself into a Korean (in the case of Tae Kwon Do) or any other Asian depending on the style being learned. Not only do these individuals assume the outer etiquettes, which form a fundamental and very important part of learning traditional styles, but also they often take on the inner attitudes of the culture from which their style originates. This is a mistake and is disingenuous, in my opinion!

Even after many years of TKD study under the tutelage of my own Korean master instructor, I have achieved a level of physical mastery, respect for the culture, observe TKD etiquette, etc., but will never pretend to adopt his national heritage as my own. My practice of traditional TKD encompasses the full scope of the teachings as learned, but will always come from a distinctly American perspective. In fact, I strongly believe that attempting to relate to TKD, my students or my own master as a pseudo-Korean myself is disrespectful to the art that I serve. To an extent this behavior, which may initially be marked by an honest, sincere, enthusiastic approach to learning and an attempt to fully assimilate the teachings runs the risk of being offensive and patronizing.

Don’t get me wrong here; I am a serious and lifelong student of the martial arts, cultural history and philosophies that originate in those mystical lands to the East and have spent most of my years purposefully seeking out and studying with Asian instructors. I always thought that, in this way and whatever the style, that it remained closer to the traditional roots and soil from which it grew as opposed to a more dilute, sports/fitness focused type of teaching often seen in American run schools. However, I looked for the practical application of this “wisdom” and their teachings and did not seek to transform my cultural identity as a result. I can write and speak enough Korean to earn a free shot of Soju, but I don’t take that side of it too seriously. Instead, that is just a fun by product of the whole learning process that adds to the education, but does not make me into what I am not!

Avoiding the lure of cultural confusion is important to the sincere practice of traditional martial arts.

Why Study Taekwondo (or any other Martial Art)?

on JUL. / 14 / 2011 | 0 comments

Taekwondo is without question, a form of exercise emphasizing speed, strength, agility and flexibility. It offers both aerobic and anaerobic, toning benefits is an outlet for stress and an effective form of self-defense. Some even call it a competitive sport.

It is all of that and more to many of its’ practitioners, but in an age with ease of access to a plethora of “activities” to fit every need why do so many turn to a Martial Art? This is a very complex question that cannot fully be addressed within the scope of this short article, but I believe we can touch on a few of the most important motivating factors. Lets start with the fact that most people want to be a part of something bigger than them and studying a Martial Art certainly appeals to that need. Typically, the initial impetus is based upon some level of ego gratification. The burning desires to become the next celebrity Martial Artist, execute jump kicks with blinding speed and to “show off” a black belt may bring you into the dojang, but if that is all that there is then, what is that keeps you there for keeps?

This is not like lifting weights or gaining the endurance to make it through an hour on the elliptical trainer. This is not about exercising to a thumping beat being pumped into your ears from an mp3 player! As the reality of the level of commitment required to achieve proficiency in TKD begins to sink in, sadly, we lose many people around the blue belt level. Earning the right to wear a black belt takes a minimum of 2-years time in most instances and further degrees take years. Advancement requires that we consistently demonstrate the ability to build on not only our physical skill, but also those centered on discipline, ethics and a host of other less tangible qualities.

The question of why we study Taekwondo or any other Martial Art is answered in the fact that at a certain point, the student recognizes that mastery does not come quickly and requires years of dedication and focused practice. At those crossroads, they either chose another path or decide to stay the course. We achieve and maintain fitness even into advanced years as the inevitable byproduct of practice, but Taekwondo clearly goes beyond mere physical exercise. In the true sense of practice, it makes us better as individual human beings which, in turn, further provides positive benefit to our home, family and by extension the communities where we live and beyond.

What brings us into the dojang on that first day is typically not what keeps us coming back. Mastery in Taekwondo is a calling that one answers and it is that commitment which remains at the core of why we study, sacrifice and give our lives to sharing this art of personal development with others. For us, there is no other way.

Importance of Forms Practice

on JUL. / 08 / 2011 | 0 comments

Based on my observations, it seems that students tend to put minimal focus on the proper development of their forms training these days. In so doing, they are robbing themselves of learning and absorbing TKD’s most critical foundations. As I watch practitioners, some of them advanced belts, run through the patterns as though they were in a race of sorts ultimately, what comes out is nothing short of sloppiness.  

I believe that many students put too much focus on quickly advancing to the next belt level and therefore, rush through learning the form. The result is that these people can mimic the steps and movements, but lack the depth of understanding in order to serve as proper examples to the junior belts. Being a good “model” is more important than the color around your waist! My intention is not to be negatively critical here, but to refocus your mental lens to better capture what will serve you better in the future.

My advice to TKD practitioners of all levels is as follows:

    •    Understand that studying martial arts is not a race that ends with earning a black belt. Learning is an ongoing process that pays no attention to the color or number of gold stripes on your belt.
    •    Proper execution of forms practice is what gives strength to your foundation. The depth and cleanliness of each movement will strengthen all areas of your TKD. What one lacks in forms will also be missing in sparring, self-defense and all other areas that you learn.
    •    It is your job to utilize all of the resources available to properly learn each step and movement.  Of course, your instructor is the most readily accessible source of information, but technology today opens up a tool chest of knowledge for you to research and assimilate on your practice.
    •    Be soft! Relax! It is important that you observe a relaxed sense of alertness as your execute your forms. Muscling through each movement harms your sense of balance and weakens your technique. Tension will cause you to lack the crispness needed to deliver the technique with depth.
    •    Be deliberate! Make each movement count. Again, this is not a race. Be focused and crisp in executing each step and technique paying close attention to breath control throughout.

Practice, practice and more practice. You have heard it before! Clear a small space at home to train, close your eyes and visualize perfect execution of the movements in your head during quiet moments instead of watching reality shows. In practice, there is no rule that says you must do all the steps of the form while learning. Take it in small chunks; fully chew and assimilate each step and then move on to the next one. In a sense, forms practice is a moving meditation that we can also use to destress and re-center our minds! If you take this approach to forms, all of your TKD with take shape and strengthen.

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