Thursday, 2 August 2012

Head Turns in Poomsae

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Last weekend or so I was practising outside the Dojang with a few friends. One was a 1st Cup that wanted to freshen up his basics and forms, the other was a long time veteran of Taekwondo (by Norwegian standards) and then there was me. We started doing some dynamic stretching as part of our warm up rutine, followed by some gentle kicing excersises, some Dan Jun breathing excercises (they are also good for the "core") and then we started doing our forms. First we did Taegeuk Il (1) Jang to Sam (3) Jang, followed by my teachers own creation the so called TTU Poomsae 1-3. The veteran of Taekwondo had recently come back from a long time not practising Taekwondo and it did not take long before she asked us why we did not turn our heads before turning while performing our forms. She first thought that the 1st Cup had forgotten it but then she noticed that I did not do it either.

Suddenly I was ripped back to the time when I was merely a new beginner. I could hear my teacher ask me "What is the first movement in Taegeuk Il (1) Jang?" It was a trick question of course, as most beginners and advanced students alike would answer "Low Block" wich meant that we would receive a 20 push ups bonus in our training as the real answer was "turning your head to the left". Oh how many push ups I had to perform because of that trick question..

Anyway back in our time the veteran asked why we did not turn our heads and I had to answer that yes we did not turn our heads anymore and I do not teach it either. After 2006 when the Kukkiwon started with the world Poomsae championships they also introduced what was for many a new standard. This new standart changed a number of things in our training, the head turns being one of them. Pre 2006 we did emphasise a turn of the head before the body so we could see our new opponent that we were facing. Post 2006 we de-emphasised the head turn and just turned it along with the body when we turned in Poomsae. The reason for this change? Competition.. We would be deducted points for emphasising head turns so we had to switch to a "natural" head turn (turning the head with the body).

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Funny thing is that this makes no sense at all when we look at "official" interpretations of our Poomsae where you turn to face a new attacker each time you turn in Poomsae. I answered her first by citing the competition reason for not turning our heads, but she rightfully pointed out that it makes little sense to not look at where the attacker attacks from as in the "official" interpretation of our Poomsae. I then demonstrated that the turns could be there to show us how to position ourselves according to an attacker from the front. Not being exposed to these kinds of applications (what I often call practical applications) she did not give me the normal "this is not Taekwondo" speach, but she saw that it fit the form so she accepted that there were more to the forms than what is normally taught. My point is that the turning of the head is fine if you look at each poomsae as a choreographed fight involving a dozen or so attackers. Not turning your head is fine if you look at practical applications where turns are there to show you how to position yourself, to gain leverage, to help with transferring body weight in grappling techniques, to learn footwork and weight shift for throws and take downs, and last but not least a turn could be a turn simply so the form will not take up so much space that you run out of training space.

Taegeuk Il (1) Jang with its 18 counts or steps would sure make a loooong line if it was performed in one straight line without turning at all. I am not sure if I could practise it anywhere but outside as I have a shortage of such looong and open rooms. Even if you introduced a turn at the midpoint you would still be going 9 steps forwards before turning and making your way back again..

I think I will let Mabuni (Teacher of at least one Kwan founder and fellow student of Funakoshi who taught many more Kwan founders) sum the turns in forms up as he does so very well:

Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon by Kenwa Mabuni as translated by Joe Swift:

The meaning of the directions in kata (Poomsae) is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata (Poomsae) movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that "this kata (Poomsae) moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents" or some such nonsense. I would like to specifically address this issue now.
Looking at the enbusen for Pinan Nidan (Pyung Ahn 2 Hyung), one can see that karate kata (Taekwondo Poomsae) move in all directions, forward and back, left and right. When interpreting kata (Poomsae), one must not get too caught up in these directions. For example, do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata (Poomsae) begins to the left that the opponent is always attacking from the left. There are two ways of looking at this:
1 - The (Poomsae) kata is defending against an attack from the left.
2 - Angle to the left against a frontal attack.
At first glance, both of these look alright. However, looking at only number (1), the meaning of the kata becomes narrow, and the kata, which in reality must be applied freely in any situation, becomes awfully meager in its application.
Looking at an actual example, the 5 Pinan kata all start to the left, and then repeat the same series of techniques to the right. Looking at interpretation (1), the opponent must always attack from the left, and while fighting that opponent, another opponent comes from behind so the defender turns to fight that opponent. This type of interpretation is highly unreasonable.
Looking at interpretation number (2) however, the 5 Pinan kata show us that against an attack from the front we can evade either left or right to put ourselves in the most advantageous position to defend ourselves."

Here is a link to the original site where I found this.

So to sum up: Head turns in forms were probably introduced as a result of poor understanding of the applications of forms. No head turns may be Kukkiwon`s attempt to teach us something (like forcing us to consider more advanced applications than the ones they provide).

Happy training:)


  1. Great article!
    I didn't know the "official" and wasn't totally sure about the practical reasons for performing or not head turns. You've been able to to clear up them both.
    It's interesting the way Kukkiwon makes some of its decisions regarding to our martial art. Maybe there will be a time when they will openly admit practical applications in their forms and even mention them in their official stuff. As the word spreads over the internet, more and more people become aware of how our traditional martial arts can be effective, if adequately comprehended. One great point is people tend choose this coherent and pratical aspect of taekwondo, and I believe this will lead a great change in schools (many would be just forced to adapt), to a point where even Kukkiwon would (hopefuly) adopt it. To me this means an overall quality leap for taekwondo learning (as well as in karate).
    Humility is a very important trait of every martial artist, and now we have to be humble to recognize that many things we learned for some time were not the full picture, and many things were just not understood right. Also, I think we have to recognize karate roots in taekwondo -- something that is basically natural for any martial arts (all derive from previous styles, there's not such a thing as "pure" art -- and there should not be). Some great martial arts spoke about no-style in martial art (when it comes to being practical I'm fully with them). Style is a sometimes pragmatic (for teaching, for example) and a marketing choice, but I don't think it should be kept over the benefit of the art.
    Thank you again for another great article!


    P.S.: I'll try to change my user name in blogger. I bekllieve it shows "unknown" because I don't have a blogspot account, only a Google account. I'll fix this later!

    1. The Karate root needs to be embraced not hidden:-)The applications in the Kukkiwon textbook leaves a lot to be desired for sure, but there is actually a few that would suprise you in that the use the pulling hand and do stuff in the forms that many say are not there because everything is block kick punch. This applies mainly to the Judanja Poomsae (Black belt forms) as the Taegeuk series applications are all seen as block kick punch allthough there are suprises even there:-)

      In Taegeuk Sa (4) Jang the application for count number 13 (Jebipoom mok chigi) is simultanious highsection block and knife hand strike. The book then instructs us to grab the opponents wrist with the openhanded high section block and pull the opponent toward you while you continue delivering a front kick and a back fist strike.

      As you know that grab is not emphasised in any way in Taegeuk Sa (4) jang so this is a clear example of a regular "pulling hand" being used in a way it was meant to be used. From this we can extrapolate many simular applications with an added control of the opponents limb.

      I wish you happy training:-)

    2. Hey, you tell me some great news there.
      I haven't seen Kukkiwon textbook, and I'm quite surprised there's such kind of applications there. You know, since I found your blog, I was able to point to a "taekwondo source" when talking to my co-practitioners, and it's great to know that Kukkiwon endorses some of thoses aspects.
      Even so, as for Jebipoom mok chigi, I think something doesn't fit well, anyway! Why? In my school we also train the "hansonnal jebipoom mok chigi", which is very similar to the first, but without high section block. The free hand is used as a normal pulling hand, and this way I believe the form is more suited for the application you mentioned. Not that they couldn't or even shouldn't be adapted to the situation, anyway.
      Look, you got some great new articles in your blog and I still haven't had time to read them. Wait for my feedback! I'm really interested!
      So I'll stop by later.
      Thank you for your response again, and see you soon!

    3. While I would recomend getting the kukkiwon textbook, I would not buy it based on the applications it shows. The emphasis throughout is on correct movement and poomsae (with a chapter devoted to step sparring). The aplications are few and most are only kick block punch stuff, but sometimes you do find a little gem like the one I mentioned where they use the pulling hand eventhough it is not emphasised in the patterns.

      They also have a great explonation on the different stages of poomsae training where step three is to find out each movements practical meaning... The full quote can be seen if you go to the blogpost A closer look at poomsae training. There is a search function in the blog if you look at the right side.

      all the best.

    4. Dear Ørjan,
      Thank you for the tip. I've been thinking about purchasing the Kukkiwon Textbook for a long time, never decided to do so, but maybe I change my idea. Anyway, I'm finding very good stuff in your blog, and I'll look for the other post you talked about. Thank you again for your response.
      Best regards.