Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Poomsae: Drama or collection of fighting skills?

"You need to decide wether your Taekwondo is for health or for practical application" (Paraphrasing legendary Martial Arts Master Anko Itosu).

We practise Poomsae as a group activity in the Dojang, and I believe several martial artists out there will do them solo in their own training time outside the Dojang. At least I hope they do:p Forms in Martial Arts of South East Asian origins used to be the center of training. The thing that kept all aspects of the system together and conveyed tactics that together imparted the principles and strategy deemed positive to give to future generations. My personal opinion and belief is that the Taekwondo forms today were originally designed so that the students of Taekwondo could use the forms that way, but the traditional main stream way of using forms in Taekwondo has been as "movement education".

Pick up any Taekwondo book from the 1960s untill the 1990s and you will see that the reasons for practising Poomsae usually amounts to "movement education". You practise Poomsae and you get better coordination, balance, speed, linkeage of basics together, body structure etc.

What we see today in books and in various Dojang all over the world and maybe especially in Korea is that the focus on Poomsae is no longer "movement education" but rather a "Competition focus". No longer is Poomsae something you practise to gain attributes whith which you can take with you into the other aspects of Taekwondo (Ho Sin Sul and Kyorugi/ self defense and sparring) but rather Poomsae training has become a goal into itself. Any book on Poomsae after 2006 has a tremendous amount of detail on how to do the movemenets but all the reasoning why you do something a specific way only amounts to: "not doing it this way amounts to the deduction of points". The closest thing we have for a "good" Poomsae book these days is "What is Poomsae" by GM Lee Kyung Hyung and even that misses a few pieces of the puzzle so to speak.

The focus of sport performance of Poomsae is not necesarily a bad thing per se, becuase the performance Level of Poomsae has risen to a great Level after the first Poomsae World Championship was held in 2006 and no matter what you use Poomsae for a good performance Level is required. I just feel that the narrow focus on sport is taking away from the goal of having Poomsae in the syllabus in a Taekwondo Dojang. If Your focus on Poomsae is 100% sport then it is not any different to dance (in my opinion). No on the outside it is usually very difficult to see any difference between a performer who uses Poomsae for applications study, movement education or sport because ideally all need a great level of performance. The big difference is what is happening on the inside of the performer. What is going on in the mind of the performer? How is he using his body while excecuting the Poomsae? It is extremely difficult to see if a movement would transfer power into the target or if the movement simply "looked good". A sport performer would only really be interested in the latter, while the Taekwondo performer would be interested in the former.

Another direction that seems to be gathering a huge following in the Unitied States is "Poomsae for Drama". Here we see a lot of great feats of body Control in the kicks being done straight up and held there, and everything done to a much larger degree than the forms originally called for. Examples include deeeeeep stances, looooong and high screaming and more frequent and longer usage of pauses for dramatic effect. I have a video example of Koryo Poomsae below which you can see what I mean.

What kind of performer of Poomsae are you? What kind would you aspire to be? How do you use Poomsae in your training? Does your current training fit in with your training goals?
Think a little on that and see if you like the answers that come up.  
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  1. Hello Sir, May I ask I can I contact you via email? My email is brian@itfline.org

    1. I sendt you an e-mail:-) I should get around to put up a "contact me" on my blog;)

  2. hello
    been away so i haven't been able to throw my $.02 in. anyway when i am at a demo or competition and i hear music starting up, i usually walk out. while i can appreciate the athleticism and conviction of the participants, it is not real for me. i have seen this as well in weapon arts, be they chinese, okinawan, or whatever. they not only use swords that look like they need a good dose of viagra, they violate every rule of fencing that i ever was given, ie. metal between you and the bad guy, sharp end points at him as well. you know, basics.

    i have always believed that the forms should convey more than "movement education". that is usually done when practicing basics with the class. they should convey useful fighting material as well. even if i have to make it all up myself (which i have had to do often). they are often called "moving meditation" but are rarely used as such nowadays. for that to be the case the mind must work at the same time as the body. you must "see" the opponent and react to his motions with yours. in addition you should be able to remember the "feel" of each move as if it were real. that skill is derived from working with a partner on the various applications before putting them into the form.

    one last point, the form also serves as a reference point for you skill level. have you slowed down, lost some of your stretch, forgotten an app, you can always reference them against the form.

    1. Glad to have you and Your two cents back Richard:-) I agree With you wholeheartedly. I also belive the forms should be a lot more than "movement education" but in the mainstream Taekwondo that is pretty much how forms were viewed and used up until recent years (at least that is my own subjective opinion on the matter). Your last sentences or last point reminds me very much of Son Duk Sung`s writings. He also described the forms as a Reference point of the Taekwondo students skill Level in his 1960s book:-)

  3. That koryo by that girl was atrocious. What a bastardization!!!! Im so offended. Thatwas ugly and absolutely stupid and that kind of performance pisses me off.

    Forms are COMBAT TECHNIQUE! Not performance art, not movement education, not drama!! They are application practice much like shadow boxing of actual self defense techniques to get you better control and power, balance, focus, and feeling of the real fight. There are so many deep movements inside poomsae no one teaches including grappling and close quarters combat defenses. They are the essence of Taekwondo and you cannot have Taekwondo without them in my opinion. And when you ruin them and do not teach what they mean you are ruining your students. I cannot stand the way poomsae are treated today and its part of why Taekwondo culture is in such a bad state. Also the lack fo combat effectiveness has made the WTF "pretty up" the forms to make them more graceful and asthetic instead of combative. If they were constantly checking combat hoshinsool technique they might not keep changing the poomsae every freaking year and they would look rougher in performance.

    Great article!! I do poomsae almost every day all of the ones I know, about 30 forms. Takes me about 21 minutes to do them in a row.

    Its sad when Taekwondo students have to go to Karate to learn applications lol. but the Kukkiwon has released some applications lately. But I am a firm believer in multiple applications for each single movement.