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The Korean Connection: Taekwondo Training in the "Land of the Morning Calm" - Part 2

by Doug Cook, March 9, 2009
Taekwondo practice

Taekwondo practice

Day Two / KNTO and Kyung Won University   

In what to me represents the epitome of Korean hospitality, our group is invited to the headquarters of the Korean National Tourism Organization in downtown Seoul, for an official welcoming ceremony. Situated on the ground floor of a vast office complex, the KNTO administrative center contains a reception area, clerical space, a display of Korean cultural artifacts, and a small auditorium where our students are each given a DVD of WTF poom-se. To my surprise, I am called to the stage by KNTO Director, Mr. Kee Hak-Whang and presented with a Special Recognition Award commending my efforts in forging a stronger relationship between Korea and the United States through the martial arts. Following a commemorative photo of the event, we are interviewed by a local news reporter.

During the planning stage of our trip, in order to provide an honest portrayal of what was to come, I informed my students that our instruction in Korea would be difficult. While in the end I decided against it, I had even considered writing ahead to request that consideration be given to those of advanced age since the youngest in our group is thirty-one, with the oldest being sixty-nine. Nonetheless, even I was not fully prepared for the physical intensity of our first day of training at Kyung Won University under the superb direction of Grandmaster Seung Hyeon Nam.  Striking in appearance with a strong, angular jaw line, close-cropped jet black hair and a trim, muscular physique, Grandmaster Nam is quick to smile and effusive with a multitude of constructive criticism. The loyalty of his students is unquestioned since at the time of our visit the college semester has ended yet still they remained on campus to assist their mentor in teaching our group. These young martial artists, all in their early twenties, were stunning in their abilities, the result of training many hours a day.

We quickly change into our doboks and assemble in the University’s dojang; a large room measuring roughly fifty by one hundred feet, with walls tapering to create a vaulted ceiling. The green and orange puzzle mat contrasts greatly with the blue and red grid we are accustomed to at our own school a world away. In his broken, but sincere English, Grandmaster Nam calls us to attention. We line up according to rank with his students, members of the Korean National Team, interspersed with our group. All of us feel a great sense of pride to be here mixed with not a little apprehension for what is to come. Sensing our tension, Grandmaster Nam patiently describes what the day’s training will consist of. First, we will do calisthenics and flexibility drills for one hour, followed by lunch, and then a jog around campus. After this, we will undertake four hours of non-stop training. At the time this sounds challenging, but nothing we cannot endure. Ten minutes into the warm up, however, we realize this will not be your ordinary training session.

Having trained at Kyung Won previously under the guidance of Grandmaster Nam’s senior, Grandmaster Kyu Seok Lee, I am familiar with the arduous series of relays unique to this school that are intended to prepare the body’s core for training. Grandmaster Nam though seems to have refined these drills in order to condition those who are seeking the ultimate in physical fitness; we begin with postures geared towards promoting flexibility, and follow with a string of sit ups, push ups and leg raises. At Grandmaster Nam’s command, we then run, jump and leap across the dojang in lines of four without interruption. Most difficult of all, however, is an exercise that I misconstrue as a crab walk. I drop to a position preparing to execute the drill and am laughed at. My embarrassment turns to incredulity when I realize that, in truth, the Kyung Won students are scampering across the gym floor in the classic wheel pose found in hatha yoga, a posture significantly more difficult than the crab. Finally, an hour and a half later, we are told to break for lunch and prepare for a jog upon our return.

Lunch consists of boiled chicken, rice and kimchi, however, I do not want to overeat and so I accept a small portion. We sit at long tables in the University cafeteria. There are an astonishing number of students present for what must be the summer session. Young people randomly approach Grandmaster Nam who is seated at an adjacent table, bowing to him with trays filled with food. Clearly, he is a highly respected instructor. Finished eating, we begin to file out and lazily stroll back to the University dojang; a short jog will be welcome. Little do we realize what lies ahead.

Upon our return, we are directed to an area just outside the dojang where members of the Kyung Won taekwondo team are gathering. The command is given by a senior student to line up four across in tight formation. We shake out our arms and legs and our jog begins.  Counting in Korean, we slowly build up speed. Our voices echo off the walls of the various buildings throughout the complex. Students poke their heads out of classroom windows to watch as we pass clad in doboks and black belts. The pace is quickened until we come to a wooded area behind the campus with a hint of a trail leading up the side of a steep mountain. We stop to catch our breath assuming our run is half over; nothing could be further from the truth. One by one the Kyung Won team breaks for the trail and disappears into the woods. Confused, we follow. Slowly, we realize that we are expected to join them in their daily run up the mountain. The path is narrow, steep and paved with a number of sharp rocks pocking through the soil. It has been tamped down over the years by martial arts students struggling, yet focused, on maintaining a high level of physical fitness. At first daunted by the effort, I  gain my second wind and actually begin passing several of the younger students who seem to be falling back. A segment of our students, too, are beginning to fade. Just when it seems the end is in sight, there is another climb around the bend. After running for what appears to be at least two miles, I hear the voices of Grandmaster Nam and his students through the trees at the crest of a final incline. Digging deep for ki, I sprint the last few hundred feet and make the summit. I am quickly joined by five of my students. Forming a circle, the Kyung Won practitioners applaud and slap our backs. Just as pride begins to blossom over our accomplishment, we are directed by Grandmaster Nam, now clothed in tee-shirt, dobok pants and a baseball cap, to turn and jog back to the starting point. His students leap into action as we stare at each other in disbelief. One by one, we shrug and dart off into the woods careful not to loose our footing since, just as the run up the mountain clearly presented a physical challenge, the journey down demands skill in remaining sure-footed. It would be disastrous to sprain or, worse, break an ankle so far from home. Students, who have not completed the run, turn back as we pass them on our return trip. Upon reaching the bottom, we discover yet another circle of students and join in executing push ups, sit ups and other strenuous calisthenics, before jogging back to the dojang. Grandmaster Nam now deems us ready to begin training.

Back on the training floor, we are shown a quick demonstration of basic skills. Apparently, the Kyung Won students use these as a prelude to kicking drills and forms practice. This exercise, which I now refer to as Basic Drill #1, consists of a series of single and double middle punches, coupled with low, middle and high blocks performed with both left and right sides of the body. The Korean Taekwondo Team is astonishing in their precision as they carry out these techniques. We then move on to kicking drills. Memories of my last visit to this institution flood my mind as I step through these; the faces have changed since the group I trained with previously has graduated and moved on, but the environment is the same. The determination of the instructor is obvious as he barks commands and the kihaps, or spirit yells, of the Koreans are unmistakable. The advanced students in our group are offered up yet another, more complex, string of techniques. To me, for use in my dojang, these become Basic Drill #2. I now generally save these for my red belts and up. Basic Drill #2 is composed of knife, X, mountain and reverse middle blocks in conjunction with a punch and spear hand strike. Again, the Kyung Won students discipline shines through as they perform flawlessly. Meanwhile, our students are thrilled with the quality of instruction thus far, continuously turning to me and asking, “How much better can it get!?”

Doug Cook Taekwondo

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?”

Read The Korean Connection: Taekwondo Training in the "Land of the Morning Calm" - Part 1

Doug Cook holds a 6th Dan Black Belt in the Korean martial art of taekwondo and is certified as an instructor and in rank by the United States Taekwondo Association and the Kukkiwon. He is the author of three best-selling books focusing on taekwondo entitled, Taekwondo: A Path to Excellence, Taekwondo: Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior and Traditional Taekwondo: Core Techniques, History, and Philosophy, a finalist in ForeWord magazine’s Book of the Year Award. All editions are published by YMAA Publication Center, Inc., and are available online and at booksellers throughout the world.


Master cook,

I am presently enrolled at one of the lee brothers Tae Kwon Do academys'.
I'm curious to know if you think a good student should make it to black belt in eighteen months. I trained in Korea while in the U.S. army years ago and traning in the US seems lacking. Please share with me your thoughts on the matter.
Anonymous – April 6, 2011, 9:12 pm

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