Monday, 9 December 2013

DVD Review of Taegeuk Cipher, Fighting and self defense applications of the Taegeuk Poomsae

If you read this blog regulary you will have read about Simon John O`Neill and his work; The Taegeuk Cipher in a few different posts lately. This one is also about him or his work, and yes, there is more to come in the weeks that follows:-) For information on how to actually get these DVDs please visit:

I wrote this a while back but waited to publish it here so it could first appear in Totally Taekwondo Magazine. This is a DVD review of the DVDs I told you about in this post and to quote that post: Short story, buy it, I reccomend it and do not think anyone buying it will regret it. For a much more indepth review of the DVD series however please read on.


Fighting and Self-Defence Applications for the Patterns of Kukki Tae Kwon Do

Review by Ørjan Nilsen


In the last issue of Totally Tae Kwon Do magazine the cat was finally out of the bag and the world got to know about the new DVDs that Simon John O’Neill has made about the Taegeuk forms. I had already known about the DVDs for some time and was delighted when I got the opportunity to review his work, as I have been a huge fan of his previous work, the book The Taegeuk Cipher, which also dealt with the applications for the Taegeuk forms set.

What impressed me then, and still impresses me today, is how Simon has taken these forms often criticised for not having any "sophisticated" applications within them and presented "sophisticated" no-nonsense self defense applications for each and every move. That is no small feat considering that at the time the book was published there was literally no other works about this, as far as I know, so he was pretty much on his own in the Kukki Taekwondo world (there had been some works published in the Karate community, though).

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this was how he presented the whole Taegeuk series as one coherent self-defence syllabus! I was afraid when I put the first disc into the DVD player that maybe the applications and the system had not stood the test of time (like when you see a once favorite movie after a few years and you find yourself wondering why it had ever appealed to you …). I was not disappointed though and I disconnected from the world around me for quite some time looking first in awe and then with full on critical thinking, trying to find something to nit-pick. Simon’s work has not stagnated and has evolved, as has he, but I will get into that in more detail in a bit. First I will write a little of what Simon promises the buyers and how the DVDs are to function.

Here from the words of Simon himself:

"To get the most out of the Taegeuk Cipher series it is important to understand where it fits into your Tae Kwon Do. Think of these DVDs as optional modules that you can add to your existing repertoire. They are not a replacement for the skills you already have. It is assumed that you already have solid striking skills, so the DVDs map out additional material not usually taught in a Tae Kwon Do syllabus but present nevertheless in the patterns, including takedowns, throws, close-range strikes, clinching solutions, weak point attacks and joint locks … Select the techniques that suit you best from each category. Each pattern shows more than one way of doing things, so you do not need to gain expertise in all of the sequences. Grasp the conceptual lessons of each pattern and choose a handful of favorite techniques."


The first thing I tried to look at was the production itself, since the only thing I was not happy with about his book was that the pictures accompanying the applications section were small and sometimes hard to see the details. I was however very pleased with the production quality of the DVDs.


Background/Studio: The DVDs are not filmed in a professional studio but rather in a well lit Dojang. This does not take anything away from the end result, however. There is plenty of light, no background noise and the sound is great. Also there is nothing in the background stealing the attention of the viewer, which is something I have experienced with other instructional DVDs.


Visual: The participants (Simon and his assistant Santiago R. Mougán) are easy to watch as the Dojang is well lit, as well as the camera zoom is just right. Also a very smart thing is done by pairing them in different colour Doboks. Simon wears a white jacket and black pants, while his assistant is wearing a black jacket and white pants. What this does is to make it really easy for the viewer to differentiate between Simon’s and his assistant’s arms and legs. This is great since most of the applications are close range. This is especially something the viewer will appreciate in the middle patterns since they deal with standing grappling.


Audio: The sound is great. There is no background noise that I could hear. All the speaking is done loud, clear and at a good pace. In some other DVDs that I have the speaker will speak very fast (for me, since I am not a native English speaker), and very much. Simon speaks at a pace that is easy to follow even for non-native English speakers, and he only shares relevant information. The speaking can easily be compared to his applications: short and to the point. Some people like it when the demonstrator jokes or tells small peripheral stories that might be somewhat related to what is being demonstrated, but this does not happen in this DVD. Simon demonstrates and gives only highly relevant, detailed explanations on the applications and the only thing not directly about what he is about to demonstrate are highly relevant information like the need to take the law into consideration (he demonstrates an application where the attacker ends up hitting the head into the ground very hard, and Simon shows how to make it a little less damaging by protecting the attacker’s head as it is going down). This is something which is hugely overlooked in martial arts videos, but incredibly important to take into consideration.


Presentation: The whole series follows a good recipe for the presentation of the different applications. First there is a short introduction on what the form is mainly about and what will be learned from it. Then Simon demonstrates the solo sequence from the form. Then he shows it slowly and clearly with his assistant. He does this about two times, usually from only one angle, but some of the more complicated sequences are demonstrated on both sides. He then demonstrates "full speed" (actually they are not "full speed" as they are filming nearly 100 sequences and taking them all full force would be counter productive.). I cringed a lot when I saw these aplications demonstrated at near full speed, as I could feel the pain of the attacker. The full speed demonstrations do look a little "scrappy", but that is only to be expected as they are trying (and succeeding) to do this with realism. The reason for this "scrappiness" is also explained on the DVDs and personally I liked it, as it shows that this section of the presentation is not carefully choreographed or scripted. What you see is what you get and I like what I see. The DVDs are also indexed so that you can easily skip from one sequence of the form to the next as you see fit.


Duration: Each DVD consists of two forms of the Taegeuk series (DVD1 = Taegeuk 1 & 2, DVD2 = Taegeuk 3 & 4, DVD3 = Taegeuk 5 & 6, DVD4 = Taegeuk 7 & 8). Each form is given about 20 minutes (sometimes a little less and sometimes a little more) so each DVD is roughly 40 minutes long. The pacing makes it easy to "go along" if you and some mates are watching these together, which I found made for a great "Taekwondo play date":-). Everyone on the Taekwondo play date agreed that while Simon has done an outstanding job with these DVDs, the unsung hero is Santiago Mougán, as he had to take a good beating being the attacker for the whole series.


The differences between the book and the DVDs: What many will ask themselves when reading this if they already have the Taegeuk Cipher book is whether there is enough new material in them to warrant also buying the DVDs. I watched through them yet again but this time with the book as my companion. I looked up the corresponding sequences in the book and watched the DVDs. Not only has Simon made a revision of his system regarding how the patterns refer to different parts of combat but he has tweaked or changed many aplications presented in the DVDs so much of the material is new. The DVDs dedicate two patterns each to punching/grabbing range, limb control, clinching and advanced techniques; in the book three patterns dealt with the “preliminary exhange”, three with “infighting and clinching” and the remaining two with “advanced self-defence”. It is my opinion that the book and the DVDs are so different that both should be bought and used together. The applications are different in many instances making more options for students to choose from. Generally the book makes use of more grappling than the DVDs do. Also the book contains a theory section so good it is worth the book alone (even without the applications), and lastly the tidbits Simon presents as theory in the DVDs are new when compared to the theory section from the book, so they both contribute to a well-organised, coherent self-defence system based on the Taegeuk forms set. That being said, if all you need or want is applications, I will recomend the DVDs over the book, as it is easier to view the applications in the DVDs than in the book.


Some things that people might object to:

·                Simon makes use of slightly different ways of executing the techniques to those that some will be used to. He uses the older “Kwan methods" while many today learn the so-called "Kukkiwon standard". This has little to do with the applications themselves, only with the solo performance of the pattern.

·                In some cases the techniques are slightly changed from the way the majority of Kukki Taekwondo exponents performs the techniques. The first instance of this is Taegeuk Sam Jang where the outward knife hand block chambers are done on the inside of the pulling hand rather on the outside, which is the way Kukkiwon now teaches it.

·                The "scrappiness" of the full speed demonstrations, but this is explained both on the DVDs and any long-time exponent of Taekwondo will attest to the reasons for this.

·                I am sure some people would have liked the solo performance of the patterns to be done in more detail, but the focus of this series is the practical fighting and self-defence applications of the forms. You should already have a good grasp of the solo performance before getting the DVDs.  


The applications themselves: I will not write about specific applications in the review, but as I do write that I like them it is only fair to write about how I "judge" whether an application is "good" or "bad". The first thing is always context and this is clearly given in the headline of the DVDs and that is self-defence and fighting. These two terms (along with duelling) are explained in great detail in the book. After the context is defined you can look at the applications themselves. I am a fan of and influenced by a book called 5 Years, One Kata by Bill Burgar, and when looking at applications this is what I look for:

·                Proactive: The proactive scale is from pre-emption (you strike first) to total reaction. Generally I like applications that lean more towards pre-emption than to total reaction. Most applications are somewhere in between, though.

·                Keeps initiative: When we first take the initiative (regardless of whether we were pre-emptive or totally reactionary to an attack to begin with) it is important to keep the initiative. The applications in the DVD generally score very highly on this criterion.

·                Maximises safety: Self-defence and fighting are anything but "safe". There are, however, ways to minimise danger. Being out of range of the attack is safe. Moving to the inside or outside of an attack is "safe" (depending on the attack). Off-balancing the opponent is "safe". Any application that does not leave you with a great advantage over the attacker or has not taken the attacker out of the game (either thrown him sufficiently off balance so you can flee or incapacitated him with a TKO or KO) scores very low on this criteria. The DVD applications score high on this criterion as well.

·                Maximises redundancy: The more things that can go wrong with an application while still allowing a desirable outcome scores high on this criterion; an application’s inherent "back up" if you will. Again the DVD applications score highly here.

·                Workable under the influence of adrenaline: Any application that takes the effect of the "adrenaline dump" (loss of fine motor skills, tunnel vision, etc.) scores highly on this criterion. Applications that rely on the defender’s fine motor skills and elaborate balance scores low. The DVDs score very high on this criterion.

·                Workable with instinct: This is different between a trained and untrained person and from individual to individual, so this is hard to give feed back on. The first DVD responds to haymakers by moving forwards and inside. This moving forward into the opponent will not come naturally for most untrained persons but for me after training in Taekwondo for 13 years it is natural. I gave the applications a good score for me personally but I know that beginners and others might give the applications a lower score on this. I will only say that as long as the practitioner is OK with the adrenaline rush the instinct can be trained over time. It depends on how much time you give them, as applications working with instinct will be easier to train than those working against instinct. Again, personally I give the application a high score on this.

·                Maximises predictable response: The more reliable a predictable response a technique elicits the higher the score on this measure. I give the applications on the DVDs a high score here as well.

·                Unbalances the opponent: As long as an opponent is off-balanced he cannot effectively attack you. We are biologically programmed to first regain our balance before we do anything else. Therefore a good application has an unbalancing effect of some sort on the opponent. This is also true about the DVD applications so yet again a very high score on this aspect too.

·                Leads the mind of the opponent: Here we want applications that change an attacker’s mindset from offensive to defensive. Also a plus on this aspect is if an aplication does "many things at once", for example pushing in one direction and then suddenly changing direction, or multiple strikes in one fluid movement. Again the DVD applications score high showing how robust the system Simon has developed is. 

·                Low maintenance: Here we are talking about applications that require little ongoing practice to keep them at a workable level. Obviously more practice ensures a higher workable level, but there is an advantage if they require less training than others so you can use them even if it is some time since you last trained them. We are yet again talking about simple techniques and body mechanics here. The Taegeuk series of forms lend themselves very well to this as they are generally simpler in execution than other "competing" form sets like the Pyung Ahn, Chang Hon, etc.. Simon has taken advantage of this as the applications presented are most often gross movements that are easy to pull off. Usually you can make them work using only parts of the whole application, which also attests to their redundancy.

·                Range: Here we are simply looking at whether the applications are being done at a realistic range. If you start out and rely on normal competition sparring starting range you are not in a realistic range. Most fights occur at "talking" range or within an arm’s reach. The longest range being presented in the DVDs are within a forearms length so yeah, they do score highly on this too.

·                Simple: I follow the KISS (Keep it Simple, Stupid) philosophy here, and it seems that Simon does as well, meaning yet again a high score. By simplicity I mean: simple to perform under stress, simple to learn, simple to maintain and simple to perform under difficult conditions like slippery floor, uneven ground, poor light or vision, cramped space, etc..

·                Transferrable skills: Here we look at the application being presented and see if training this application trains skills that are transferrable to other tasks used by the system as a whole. If this is the case you have the advantage that training one application will make you better at more than just the one you are actually training. This might be a difficult concept to wrap your brain around, but think about it because the advantage is huge if you can pull it off. I am sure that others who will see the DVDs and put the applications up for closer scrutiny like I have done will find that they score high on this yet again.

·                Overall balance of the Taegeuk system: If the DVDs limited themselves with 96 sequences against a haymaker you would get too many reactions against one attack and overall a system of limited usefulness. I think it is important when looking at the Taegeuk forms series as a whole that the system made should take the whole range of fighting into account and not be a series of forms against lapel grabs or wrist locks, etc.. They should provide the student with everything he likely needs to defend himself with (doubly so if he understands the underlying principles that govern the forms, the applications and self-defence). Again a high score here as Simon takes us from the initial fight (haymakers, simple takedowns) to clearing of limbs, to standing grappling to advanced self-defence techniques. The attacks being defended against along with combative range varies from DVD to DVD.

·                In line with Taekwondo’s strategy: Taekwondo in my eyes is primarily a striking system. It contains simple grappling skills but primarily it is the strikes that make up Taekwondo’s strategy. The grappling skills in Taekwondo (in my personal opinion) are not highly sophisticated Hapkido-type techniques but rather simple grappling that has three roles: 1. Removing any grab so you can continue striking, 2. Positioning the attacker in such a way that you can freely strike him and 3. Propelling the attacker forcibly against the ground. Again the DVDs seem to support this with simple but very effective grappling, which is in most cases quite different to the Hapkido or Judo-type techniques often seen in “bunkai” videos. In this sense I think that Simon has hit the nail on its head, so to speak, as both the striking and the grappling use movement templates which are already familiar to Taekwondo practitioners, and there is a preference for the former over the latter.


I wholeheartedly recommend this series of DVDs (and the Taegeuk Cipher book) to all practitioners of Taekwondo and the Taegeuk forms set. There is an ongoing debate on the role of forms applications in Taekwondo, but I do not think that anyone will dismiss the advantage of linking your self-defence, sparring and basic techniques together with the forms to make a coherent whole. There is not a single similar product on the market dealing with the Taegeuk forms so we are indeed lucky as Taekwondoin to finally have access to them and that the end result is as good as it is. The DVDs really live up to what they promise, and I very much doubt that anyone buying them will regret it.


Information on how to get the Taegeuk Cipher book and DVD series (DVDs available singly or in a special four disc set) can be found at


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