The Korean Connection: Taekwondo Training in the "Land of the Morning Calm" - Part 3
Grandmaster Nam is an exceptional instructor, nimbly moving from one component of the taekwondo curriculum to the next. From basic movements he continues on with one-step sparring drills, fourteen in all, ranging from axe kick/round kick combinations to spread block/double upper cut in twist stance techniques. By any standard, it is clear that he not only values the combat sport of taekwondo, but the traditional, defensive aspect of the art as well. We have been training for three hours straight with but two breaks for water or mul . There is not a person among us who wants this experience to end. Still, the pitch at which we have been working is beginning to show. For another fifty minutes we focus on forms, or poom-se, starting with Taegeuk Il Jang and ending with Pyongwon. In reviewing video tapes of this session, I am both pleased to have participated with such able companions and, in equal part, proud at the ability displayed by our students in matching the precision of the Kyung Won team during poom-se training. For, to me, forms represent the essence of any classical martial art.
In what is to be our final exposure to Kyung Won, at least for this excursion, Grandmaster Nam leads his students in an amazing demonstration of taekwondo skill. After again lining up in strict military fashion, he commands his charges to vigorously perform Basic Drills 1, 2 and 3. Based solely on the fluidity and precision with which these techniques are delivered, it is blatantly obvious that these students are endowed with the spirit and physical stamina required of the true martial artist. Then, eight feet in the air, one student jumps, breaking two separate boards with a double jumping front kick. Another spins three consecutive times destroying multiple pieces of wood with high, mid and low spinning hook kicks followed by a reverse punch penetrating five one-inch thick boards. Our visit to Kyung Won concludes with Grandmaster Nam and I exchanging books each of us has authored on the art of taekwondo. After capturing the moment on film, we bid good-bye to our new friends and board our bus for the return trip to the Itaewon Hotel.
Day Three / HOKI Taekwondo
If one were to visit the KNTO website and manipulate the dropdown menus in search of taekwondo tours, they would ultimately arrive at a link for HOKI Taekwondo. Located in an outbuilding at the Korean War Museum in Seoul, HOKI boasts a spacious, new dojang in the shape of an octagon. The floor, again, is fitted with puzzle mat, however this time the colors are those of our own school back in New York: blue and red. Against one wall is a raised, oak platform above which hangs a large embossed plastic Korean flag. On either side, in bas-relief, are images of Kumgang Yuksa; the stern warrior that guards a huge statue of Buddha at Seokguram Grotto in Kyongju.
As we enter, we are greeted by Master Byeong Cheol An, an affable young man with glasses whose English is clearly better than our Korean. He directs us first to a changing room and then invites us down a flight of open stairs to the training floor. There, his students are stretching out in preparation for a brief demonstration. I quickly mount my video camera on its tripod, as I did a Kyung Won, making certain the cassette is properly loaded in order to capture the activities of the day for future viewing. The HOKI Team, HOKI meaning “little tiger”, begins with a display of basic skills followed by a series of dramatic breaking techniques. They then don hogu, or chest protectors, and continue with a strong exhibition of self-defense techniques and WTF Olympic-style, full contact sparring. Upon completion, with the sound of applause ringing in their ears, they bow, turn and exit the dojang leaving Master An to administer the day’s curriculum.
We begin with a period of seated meditation and ki development exercises coupled with a posture borrowed from taijichuan. In this exercise we rub the palms together, with the friction generated meant to stimulate ki circulation. We place the hands before us feeling the ki bathe our faces, then, placing the palms against our kidneys, experience the transfer of energy to that area of the body. The taiji posture we employ has us mimicking an archer drawing a bow, awakening the warrior spirit within. Standing, we drop into horse stance and begin a series of single, double and triple punches, followed by a succession of stepping blocks and strikes in a variety of stances.
For many of my students, this trip is their first exposure to native, Korean martial artists and I secretly smile at their reaction as Master XXX demonstrates the kicking drills we are to practice next. Relatively common techniques such as front, round and axe kicks explode in a blaze of fury when executed by the gold-standard practitioners we have come in contact with thus far. Inspired, my students, all adults in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, rise to the occasion and I notice with delight that their skills are improving before my eyes; this is the magic of training in the “Land of the Morning Calm”.
On previous visits, it seemed forms practice was, for the most part, eclipsed by sparring drills. So when the command is given to line up for poom-se at the completion of the kicking combinations, I am overjoyed. We commence with Taegeuk Il Jang and progress to Kumgang. The group on the training floor diminishes as forms of ever-escalating complexity continue until I am the last standing being the most senior rank present. We finally arrive at poom-se Taebaek, a third-dan form signifying Mount Baekdoo where the legendary Tan-gun purportedly established Korea forty-three hundred years ago. After many years of meditation, I will myself to be mindful of the moment and at the command of “Sijak!” I begin. Each stance is given its proper value; every block and strike an ingredient of relaxation, breath…power. Somewhere in my consciousness I hear “Barro!” and return to the joombi stance. If our group’s applause is any gauge of success, then I have done well, however, it is the thumbs-up I receive from Master An that stamps this performance as one I will never forget!
Our training at HOKI would not be complete without instruction in full contact WTF Olympic-style sparring. A number of our students have been patiently awaiting an opportunity to spar with the best-of-the-best and now the time has finally arrived. Master An, wearing the hats of referee and instructor, steps the group through a number of blocking maneuvers, teaching how to protect against the ever-present front and back leg round kick: the sport’s number one scoring technique. Then, suiting up in the required hogu, helmet, forearm and shin guards, each student in turn is directed to face one other. Any practitioner who has entered the ring appreciates how difficult it is to repeat the many offensive and defensive drills one practices during an ordinary training session; particularly when the match takes place in a foreign environment. Our students, however, conscious of the watchful eyes upon them, do their best demonstrating efficiency and focus under stress. Rather then expending energy throwing wasteful strikes, they wait and when appropriate, counterattack with jumping back kicks, axe kicks and well placed round kicks.
As the day at HOKI draws to an end, Master An distributes a breaking board and marker pen to each student. He directs us to write one desire we sincerely wish to accomplish in life on the board; some write of their hope to be better parents, husbands or wives; others to be stronger individuals and martial artists. Then, one by one we step up on the oak stage and destroy the wood with a technique of choice. I choose an unsupported spinning hook kick and break on the first attempt. The others do the same with various foot and hand techniques, however, all agree this is an appropriate way to end our five-hour long training session, mixing the virtuous with the physical. Emotionally charged, a student turns to me and asks: “how much better can it get?”
Day Four / Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun-Lee
Paging through the Kukkiwon Textbook many years ago, I took notice of a severe looking martial artist chosen to model the unique and effective techniques of taekwondo by virtue of his long experience and skilled attention to detail. Again, in 1998, this high-ranking practitioner would appear in a promotional video for the Organizing Committee for Taekwondo Korea 2000 as a staff instructor. Seeing Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun-Lee in motion rather than on the printed page, convinced me that I would someday seek out his instruction. As destiny would have it, this was more difficult than expected. In planning the 1999 United States Taekwondo Association Korea Training & Cultural Tour, I had inquired if he would be one of our teachers and was informed that his schedule did not coincide with our visit. Subsequently, in the initial planning stage of our present trip I once more requested his talents: “unavailable”, was the response from Korea and so disappointedly I turned my gaze elsewhere. Then, a few short weeks before departure, I received a surprise email from Ms. Cheong at Darlin Tour Services stating that the grandmaster had accepted our group for a day of training provided we allow his senior instructors to assist. This stipulation took all of one minute to consider; rather than a condition, it was truly a bonus!
Following breakfast on our fourth day in-country, we board our motor coach and begin the journey to Yangsu-ri, a small village about an hour’s drive from Seoul. Our training to date has been challenging and highly rewarding, balanced between the martial art and combat sport of taekwondo. Today’s training will focus on precise basic technique and the pursuit of excellence in poom-se. The metropolitan scenery flashes by as our guide directs our attention to several key points of interest along the way. Slowly, the urban sprawl begins to thin as rice fields replace the high rise apartments. We exit the freeway and snake our way through winding country roads barely wide enough to accommodate the width of our bus. A tiny picturesque village materializes with a gas station, restaurant and shops selling fish, red peppers and an assortment of daily needs.
Crossing a well-maintained concrete bridge minus guard rails that spans a swiftly running brook, we have gone as far as our bus can take us. I am the second off the bus after our driver who is animatedly chatting with two gentlemen standing next to a Hyundai sedan. I am suddenly overwhelmed with disbelief as I see the grandmaster I have traveled eight thousand miles to train with before me. Single file, my students line up and we bow. It is then that the stern face I have only witnessed in photos and on film erupts into a broad, welcoming smile and Grandmaster Lee invites us to follow him and his instructors up a rutted dirt road. We pass a squat, single-story dwelling on our left that is his home and continue on a few steps to a red brick building with two sets of double doors thrown open to the outside that houses the grandmaster’s personal dojang. Inside, it is cool in stark contrast to the humid air that weighs heavy in the small valley. Instantly, we are enchanted by our surroundings. The floor is set with green puzzle-mat bordered in orange, and the walls are adorned with memorabilia from a lifetime devoted to the Korean martial arts. In a neat row, over the doors, hang circular metal plates inscribed with the names of the original kwans,or martial arts schools,established in the 1940’s and 50’s, before the discordant styles were united to form taekwondo; names like the Moo Duk Kwan, Chung Do Kwan, and Oh Do Kwan, leap out reminding us of the tenure and seniority Grandmaster Lee enjoys in the taekwondo community. Suspended on the far wall in a black wooden frame is a scroll written in hangul characters reading: “A National Sport, Taekwondo”. There were, purportedly, fifty of these icons painted in personal calligraphy by South Korean President Park Chung-Hee in March of 1971. The majority, such as the one before us, reside inside the borders of Korea while the remaining few were distributed to master instructors throughout the world. One was displayed in Grandmaster Richard Chun’s New York City dojang for over thirty years and was recently given to us as a treasured gift. With reverence, we quietly prepare to train by changing into our doboks and lining up, four across. Finally, there before us is the man the World Taekwondo Federation has endorsed as the standard against which all practitioners of taekwondo should be compared for excellence in basic motions and poom-se.
Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun-Lee cuts a striking image; with a shock of white hair centered over the left eye, in concert with his drill sergeant demeanor, his presence is unmistakable. He is in his early sixties but moves like a cat. His flexibility, enthusiasm and strength are in direct proportion to his long years of dedication to the art of taekwondo. He is currently president of the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy and director of the Kukkiwon Taekwondo Training Center. From 1990 to 1998, he abilities earned him the position of Chairman of the Training Subcommittee, Kukkiwon and prior to that, from 1973 to 1982, he was head of the Kukkiwon Demonstration Team. I respectfully approach him and offer up a letter of greeting drafted by Grandmaster Chun introducing me as one of his senior students and briefly describing my qualifications. Returning to my place in line, we assume the joombi posture, bow, and the training session officially begins.
The tension our group is projecting immediately shatters as the grandmaster, smiling, begins to wiggle from side to side, shaking his arms up and down in an effort meant to relax our taut bodies. Then, reminded to breathe, the standard warm up and flexibility exercises begin in earnest. It appears many of the more extreme postures have been borrowed form yoga and we begin to perspire as the heat from our bodies warms the room. We continue to work on technique that many would accuse of being far too simple in exchange for an eight-thousand mile trip. My students and I, however, are so intrigued when the grandmaster reviews the process of making a proper fist that we photograph the precision with which it is accomplished along with the wear that is a result of striking solid objects for many years. And it does not stop there; front stance, back stance, middle blocks, knife hand blocks, front kicks, round and side kicks, are all scrutinized beneath the magnifying glass of experience. A common thread running through the execution of every strike or block is the constant reminder to relax in our delivery and tense at the point of impact and penetration of the target. The phrase, “relaxation and POWER!” is repeated over and over again.
After several hours of uninterrupted training, a break is called and we congregate in small groups to compare notes and review what we have been shown. Some gravitate to the water cooler situated in a corner of the room for a sip of much-needed refreshment. The conversation turns to differences some are noticing in the fabric of instruction. However, before I can gain a better understanding of the root of these questions, we are commanded to reconvene.
At the close of the opening ritual, we are separated into groups according to belt rank and prepare for poom-se practice. In comparison to prior visits, I could not be more delighted in the direction our training has taken. Thinking back, in candid discussions with several Korean practitioners during a trip in 1999, I was told of a movement by certain masters to return from a sportive approach to a more holistic style of training including forms and self-defense drills. Our experiences today, and the days previous, seem to confirm the reality of this trend. Although the Palgwe set is not given credence, the eight Taegeuk, in tandem with the mandatory WTF black belt series poom-se, are thankfully addressed in detail. For black belts and color belts alike, no banquet is as bountiful as this day’s forms practice; each is afforded the opportunity to refine the basic skills contained within the poom-se unique to their belt level either under the intense direction of Grandmaster Lee, or one of his accomplished instructors. I am working on poom-se Sipjin while other black belts are focusing on Keumgang and Koryo. I can still not believe that I am receiving private instruction from Grandmaster Lee who explains the practical application of each movement of my form in conjunction with its proper trajectory and chamber. From the corner of my eye, I glimpse my students receiving equal attention in analyzing the various Taegeuk poom-se albeit with some minor alterations from what they are used to.
Suddenly, as the day progresses a potential dilemma begins to gnaw at me, as it must many instructors from time to time, and I sense what it was my students were referring to earlier as “differences” in curriculum. The World Taekwondo Instructor Academy, under the direction of Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun-Lee, is attempting, at least on the surface, to introduce a subtle shift in the dynamic principles of taekwondo technique based on an advanced understanding of physics as it relates to body mechanics. A modern approach, authored by Grandmaster Lee, is being applied to footwork, power ratio, chambering and weapons training while all the while attempting to maintain the value of traditionalism. Today, we have been exposed to technical variations that faintly contradict the manner of execution we are familiar with forcing my students to politely ask: “what do we do now?” Buried in this question is an important lesson both for me and my colleagues. Traditional taekwondo is a cultural treasure chest filled with effective self-defense skills supported by a virtuous philosophy. Although the Korean discipline contains immutable tools such as the round kick, back fist and knife block to name a few, the manner in which these are performed may vary slightly from master to master. This fact does not corrupt the basic principles of taekwondo; rather it adds color and individuality to something that is an art rather an absolute science. Consequently, it is my desire to expose my students, at least those capable of sustaining an open mind, to the diversity inherent in taekwondo whether it is at home or abroad, resulting in what I hope will be perceived as an enhanced training experience overall. Having said this, however, it is to the teachings of my instructor, Grandmaster Richard Chun, that I am faithful.
To illuminate every nuance of our training under Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun Lee, Master Byeong Cheol An of HOKI Taekwondo, and Grandmaster Seung Hyeon Nam at Kyung Won University, within the spotlight of specificity would require a great deal of editorial space and patience on the part of the reader. Therefore, it is and has been my intention thus far, to underscore only the highlights of our experiences with these highly capable master instructors. Future in-depth articles will be spawned from memory, video, and voice recordings, by my pen in the hope of conveying the detail and value of these incredible training opportunities to our readers.
The Final Few Days / On to Kyongju
No trip to Korea would be complete without a visit to Kyongju, the ancient capital of Silla and the repository of the nation’s cultural wealth. Located in the southern portion of the peninsula, this historically-fertile region was once the training ground of the Hwarang, Korea’s noble warrior-elite that devoted much of their time to the practice of the martial arts bolstered by a thirst for Asian philosophy.
Our first stop is Tumuli Park, where great mounds of earth mark the tombs of ancient Sillian royalty. It was here in 1974 that Chon’mach’ong, or the Flying Horse Tomb, was excavated yielding more than ten thousand treasures including a golden crown adorned with kidney-shaped jade, traditionally worn by the Sillian kings. Upon the monarch’s death, he and many of his worldly possessions were placed in a room-like enclosure. Gravel, rock, and then earth, were piled on top eventually creating the fifty foot, hemispherical shapes before us. This ingenious method of construction discouraged looting since the only safe entry was from the crest of the mound thus eliminating surreptitious entry from below. A short distance from the tombs, we find Ch’omsongdae Observatory. Built during the seventh century, this bottle-shaped building is thought to be the oldest structure of its kind in the world. Legend has it that Sillian queens would be lifted through the small, south facing window, there to gaze at the heavens.
Next morning, we venture to Bulguksa Temple, a stunning monument to both the skill of Silla’s architects and its Buddhist faith. Originally built in 535 A.D., we are humbled by the splendor of the tiled roofs supported by timeless timbers painted in the brilliant blue, green and red hues unique to temple art. Although it is raining heavily, our students seize the moment and pose for a series of dignified photos depicting the beauty and strength of traditional taekwondo. Later, to our delight, we discover that the monks in permanent residence have given us permission to join them for a period of meditation. Removing our shoes, we bow and enter the relative dark of an ancient meditation hall. The surrounding air hangs heavy with a sense of peace mixed with the twisting wisps of sandalwood incense. A great gold statue of the Buddha sits before us and time disappears as we attempt to relinquish all thought.
A perfect ending to our trip comes in the form of a visit to Tong-Il Jeon shrine dedicated to the memory of the Hwarang and the illustrious generals that lead them to victory and the subsequent unification of the Three Kingdoms. Nestled in the folds of Namsan Mountain, one must climb countless steps in order to reach the stately structures housing oil paintings of military training and legendary battles. There, in a courtyard we line up, come to attention, and perform a series of poom-se in solemn tribute to fallen warriors of the past. Looking up, we notice a cloud of dragonflies hovering overhead in silent watchfulness. We are told by our guide that in Korea this is an auspicious sign. The kihaps that punctuate our blocks and strikesreverberate through the valley with the returning echo amplifying the strength of our movements all the more. At the completion of our training several of us have tears in our eyes as we internalize the profundity of our actions within the bounds of this sacred place.
Reverentially, we stroll back to our motor coach for the return trip to the Itaewon Hotel in Seoul and, eventually, Incheon International Airport. “Look!” someone shouts, pointing up in astonishment: high above our group a cloud of dragonflies follows.
Training in the Land of the Morning Calm is an experience the martial artist will remember for a lifetime. Traveling there in 1994, 1999, 2004, and again in 2007 provided my students and I with insights that have significantly amplified our skills. We will be returning again to Korea and visiting China as well, for eight days in July of 2009. Students interested in joining our group along with Grandmaster Richard Chun, can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at (845) 986-2288. All are welcome to participate regardless of age, belt rank, or style.Read The Korean Connection: Taekwondo Training in the "Land of the Morning Calm" - Part 2