After teaching taekwondo for many years, I have come to some concrete observations. As an instructor and school owner I have noticed that many new students have a difficult time acclimating to Eastern customs. Certainly this is understandable given the difference in worldview between Asian culture and ours in the West. What is the remedy to this dilemma? How does the competent instructor motivate students to remain, following their first few classes, in order to reap the benefits of long-term martial arts training?

The good news is that a silver bullet does exist in response to this quandary and the answer is—Surrender! Yes, before any new information or skill—of whatever nature—can be absorbed, the individual must clear the mind, wipe clean the mental blackboard, and empty the cup. All existing preconceptions concerning the martial arts need to be released—in essence, surrendered. This principle, if applied consistently, will not only act as a remedy for many initial misapprehensions, but over time, will result in more rewarding training sessions both physically and mentally.

For instance, the required bow of respect that is part and parcel of taekwondo etiquette causes some to go scurrying from the training hall before the first kick is ever thrown. Add to this the practice of meditation coupled with Ki development exercises—techniques that resonate with metaphysics—and what is often left is a recipe for a quick departure. In my school, for example, the population is composed primarily of adults; issues such as flexibility, stamina, age, gender, and memory all come into play.

Behavioral patterns ingrained since childhood find men and women, particularly in the formative stages of their training, relating differently to taekwondo instruction. By way of example, having been involved in schoolyard squabbles as an adolescent, the adult male often feels that he is experienced in the ways of combat. Additionally, having observed fight scenes on television and in the cinema, many men come equipped with baggage that needs to be replaced with authentic defensive skills supported by an appreciation for the damage they inflict. Another fundamental impediment is the male ego that is expressed as a tendency to fear the appearance of ignorance regardless of subject matter.

Women, on the other hand, face a different sort of challenge. Many adult females who practice taekwondo do so with their family and are, therefore, mothers. Performing a deadly counterattack on an adversary clearly bent on bodily harm presents the likelihood of triggering a maternal instinct that reminds the defender that she is about to injure someone else’s child regardless of intent. This unfortunate situation is certain to result in a flicker of response time with possibly fatal consequences. And then there is the overriding embarrassment of women being subconsciously programmed over countless years by society in general to be both timid and subservient. Observe a novice adult woman’s fighting, or as I more correctly refer to it, a defense stance; the guard hand is often drawn in close to the woman’s body in an almost obvious refusal to claim the immediate space around her that is her birthright.

Remove Roadblocks and Surrender!

Certainly, there are other obstacles we can identify that hinder the painless acceptance of martial arts decorum and technique. Yet these roadblocks to progress must be removed if we expect to enjoy a rewarding training experience. What is the remedy to this dilemma? Again, Surrender!

Let us for a moment examine how this notion of surrender can be applied during a typical taekwondo class. The student arrives at the dojang after a busy day at school or work. The mind is ripe with distractions, the body fatigued from physical stress. The session begins with a period of meditation. Surrender to the moment. Think of the mind as a glass of water drawn from a pond containing a quantity of sediment. Allowing the glass to sit undisturbed for a moment will permit the particles to settle causing the liquid to clear. The same holds true of the mind. With some effort, surrendering all concerns to the task at hand will prepare the mind to not only accept new information without being distracted, but will set the stage for more focused training.

Next, muscles taut from sitting at a desk all day or riding in a car must be permitted to relax safely. During flexibility exercises, students should breathe into the particular stretch and not hold their breath. They should also visualize the muscles elongating with each exhalation and, literally, surrender to the stretch.

As the core curriculum continues focusing on basics, poomsae, and self-defense, it is a simple matter for students to compare themselves to each other—particularly low belts to advanced belts, adults to teens. Being overly judgmental of their technique can create a highly toxic situation. Better to leave self-criticism on the doorstep and simply—do. Dwelling on how poorly a kick was executed or, conversely, congratulating yourself on a poomsae well done will interfere with the natural flow of technique. Instead, dismiss conscious self-evaluation and surrender to an empty mind as described in the practice of Zen meditation. Personally, some of my most memorable training experiences involved the conscious dismissal of self-judgment.

Lastly, the practice of free-sparring can offer yet another opportunity to utilize the gift of surrender. In order to act rapidly in competition or in the face of a true threat that has escalated beyond verbal mediation, the mind in concert with the body must react rather than anticipate. Making the false assumption that an opponent will execute a reverse punch when, in truth, his intention is to kick may result in severe injury to the defender, or at best, a point in favor of the opponent. To appreciate the value of surrender, the concept of mushin, or mind/no mind, the mental condition that frees the spirit of preconceived notions and expectations during practice should be applied as well.

Have The Courage To Pursue A Discipline

Many of the scenarios examined here relate to the experienced practitioner. Those standing at the threshold of the martial arts would do well to release all prejudice concerning decorum and simply appreciate the cultural relevancy of the act they are performing along with the philosophical underpinnings in which they are rooted. Bowing clearly does not make one a slave to another, nor does vigorously responding “Yes, Sir” or “Yes, Ma’am” to a command. Likewise, admitting that a body of knowledge is radically and, for that matter, literally foreign in nature does not label you as being incompetent. On the contrary, having the courage to pursue a discipline steeped in honor and tradition demonstrates your ability to embrace exciting, new concepts in life unencumbered by the fear of appearing inept.

For all these reasons, traditional taekwondo practice is as relevant today as it was decades ago and, in some cases, even more so. Yet enrichment of character, as the suffix do in taekwondo implies, comes at a cost. But in order to realize the benefits of disciplined training in its fullness, both the novice and experienced practitioner alike must remember to surrender to new concepts and methods on their path to self-enrichment. Understandably, demonstrating the resilience to make judgment calls of this nature often results in untoward emotional stress complicating practice even further. And here we are faced with a question: Is the intensity of stress commonly generated by traditional taekwondo training necessarily detrimental? Or is it something to be acknowledged, respected, and ultimately confronted in the same manner as would an accommodating training partner in learning how to conquer chronic stress in daily life.