Friday, 8 May 2015

Keys to understanding Poomsae

This post is a result of my thoughts and notes after hearing a podcast by Iain Abernethy on called "Keys to understanding Kata". I will not remind the readers too much about Taekwondo`s relationship and close kinship with Karate, but suffice to say no matter which Kwan (School) your Taekwondo comes from that Kwan will have a strong Karate link. Likewise no matter if you practise and study Hyung (Pyung ahn, Kongsookoon, Pal Saek, Chulgi etc), the KTA forms (Taegeuk, Palgwe and Black Belt forms) or the Chang Hon Tul (Chon Ji, Hwarang, etc) the tradition with solo forms was imported through Karate. Therefore it makes sense to read and listen to Karate masters and from that gain additional insights into our own current system of Taekwondo. I am not saying that we should just incorporate blindly everything the karate people are saying, but I think it is foolish not to even consider their point of view.

First: Who is Iain Abernethy? Iain is a world renowned expert in practical applications of forms in the Karate comunity. He has studdied modern combatives as well as Wado Ryu Karate and as far as I know he holds the rank of 5th Dan with Wado Ryu and 5th Dan in the BCA (British Combat Association). He is very knowledgeable in all aspects of self defense and he uses Kata (or forms) as his basis in his teachings. I like his approach and he was a great inspiration for me early on when I first started looking into the Poomsae for combative meaning and looking through my notes from this podcast I think that most of the "Keys" as he calls them has been covered on this blog throughout the different posts on how to find practical applications to the Poomsae movements.

Keys to understanding Kata (Poomsae) 

1: Poomsae (Kata) applications ends it quickly and efficiently. All Poomsae applications should do one of three things:
    1. Create Advantage
    2. Maintain Advantage
    3. Exploit Advantage
I like this "key" or principle and strive to follow it very closely in my own applications. You see that the longer you are "fighting" the bigger the risk of serious injury. It is better to end the confrontation at once very quickly instead of a long drawn out fight. Best defense is obviously not to be in a situation in the first place though. If you take a long honest look at most applications you will see and be exposed to throught official textbooks, seminars etc you will notice that very few of them actually accomplish anything. The biggest sinners against this principle in application are those sequences that are interpreted as purely blocking. But if you are honest many applications of sequences involving a counterattack is also against this principle as you block one punch and then punch back. "What if" is often a question we hear when teaching these simplified applications. A good applications leaves very little room for "What if". The opponent is down and finished within a move or Three, there is no long drawn out fight.

2: All part of a movement is significant.

Again this key is not followed very often in "official" applications. Why is the hand at your hip in most techniques? Why do you do all the double blocks? Why do you chamber the techniques? Once you start looking at the techniques as movements and you try to apply the whole movement chamber and all you have come a far way. There is no "chamber" in a good application to Poomsae movement. Can a chambered block still be a Makki technique? Sure. And if you look at key one and two so far you can make the case that the "real" block is in the chamber and the actual block can be a follow up. If the fist Key is followed in a good way eliminates the "what if" questions, the second key eliminates the why are we doing it this way question.

3: All movements in Kata are for combat.

This is one that I will not apply dogmatically to Taekwondo. There are several reasons for this. Allthough I strive for combative meaning to each and every movement there are movements in Poomsae that makes little sense in what I would define as practical for self defense. The double side kick of Koryo, the jumping kick in Chonkwon and the jumping side kick in illyeo are just a few that I dont think will apply to self defense. Perhaps my definition of "combat" = "self defense" is to strict here. Perhaps combat should be a little looser in its definition? After all jumping kicks and other "unrealistic" techniques can be and are pulled of in MMA, K1 etc regulary. There is also the question of wether the makers of Poomsae included some movements for Ki-development such as the folded fist position in the middle of Chil Jang or if that too should be interpreted as a combative technique? There were several people behind the KTA forms. Whereas some might have had one vision for Taekwondo and only included combative techniques others might have included other aspects because they viewed forms differently. In China there are some movements that can be Applied in a combative setting but which are included in the forms for training purposes. Air grabbing of Chin Na in Eagle Claw for instance.

4: Angles you perform techniques in Kata are important.

I like this key and strive for it in my own applications. It is totally inline with Choki Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni`s writings, but again who knows how the originators of Taekwondo Poomsae taught? As such I think that turns and angles can have different meanings as to who inteprets the forms meaning, and who originally designed the form. Turns and angles in Taekwondo Poomsae can therefore be among other things:

    1. Turns simply for turning so you do not use up all your training space
    2. Turns to signify how you should position yourself in relation to your opponent
    3. Turns to help getting body weight transferrance into locks, trips or throws
5: Stances are a vital part of the applications.

Now this one I fully support. You never just assume a stance just because in an application. The stance should be as much a part of the application as the technique itself. It should help transfer body weight into the techniques, keep stability, attack the opponent or help getting the opponent off balance. Personally I think that it is closely related to "key 2"

6: Real fights are sloppy and chaotic. Poomsae (Kata) is not.

This is often overlooked but again I wholeheartedly agree on this point. The movements in Poomsae are done without and opponent and without any variables. The movements have a full followthrough too in many cases which makes the actual application look somewhat different to the crisp and stylized movement in Poomsae. Is your attacker Shorter, longer, bigger or smaller than yourself? The Poomsae shows and attacker that is the same height and buildt as you. Also the Poomsae will show one excact technique very specifically.

For instance: Against a high section straight punch. Take Taegeuk Il Jang the high section block followed by front kick and middle section punch. I use the chamber of the block to parry the punch, I pass to the blocking arm which lifts it up and clears the defenses to my counterattack which is a what? Front Kick, Knee strike, to the groin, thigh, front leg or back leg of the opponent? That depends on how the opponent attacked you, the distance you ended up with etc. A small change in the opponents real life attack means that the way you apply the movement might have to change, while in Poomsae the sequence is shown very specific and never fails.

7: Is the application scenario likely to happen in a real fight for self defense?
In some official applications there are made assumptions and great leaps of faith in my own opinion to make an application fit the reality. The scissors block of Taebaek or Chil Jang for instance. Here many think that the attack has to be from two attackers standing shoulder to shoulder or from one attacker who kicks low and strikes mid section at the exact same time. In Chil Jang`s case he does it again imidiatly with the other leg and foot so it fits the form. To me the scissors block is about controlling and taking the center line against one opponent or as a entry into a hammer lock again against one opponent. I do not assume he will do this or that. Longer strings in official applications too abound but the longer the string the more unlikely for it ever to happen.

8 Strike to vital points or weak spots

This one is pretty self evident. A strike to the shoulder will do little except maybe num the arm a little. That same strike to the temple however might kill a man. Aim for vital points and try to be as specific in application as possible. Dont rely on them entirely though, accuracy in a live fight is hard, but it will never ever happen unless we train for it:-)

9: No unprodictable responses from opponent, predictable responses should be taken into consideration.

Related to Key 7 but again if your application rely on an opponent to do something (here he blocks and then counters and then blocks and then counters again and I finish him) that is not probable. But if you kick your opponent int he groin he will likely bend over, if you push against his elbow joint he will move to save his elbow etc. That is the difference between predictable vs unpredictable response.

10: Each movement in Kata can have many different meanings.

This one is perhaps even truer in Taekwondo than in Karate. The movements in Chinese Kung Fu forms for instance is very specific, while a low block in Taekwondo is the same in each and every form and in each and every sequence it occurs. That does not mean that all the applications you will find for the low block will fit each sequence in Poomsae but that you will have to pick one that fits within the sequence of Poomsae. I hope that makes sense but an analogy I like to use for the scrabble players out there is that in CMA forms you often get regular letters. The A is allways an A for instance. In JMA forms (Shurite Karate) they often get the white or blank piece. Here you assign the blank piece a letter so it fits into a word of your choosing. In Taekwondo we get even more white pieces. Is this by design or not I do not know, but because they are so closely related to the building blocks of its root martial arts it is still possible (even easy) to find great combative meaning in them. Find many applications to each movement in Poomsae and then pick the appropriate ones so it fits within a sequence in the Poomsae. In Scrabble again if you have 6 white pieces and the sequence starts with a T and ends with an R you will have to make the word "Transfer" (or any other word that fits within the poomsae) to truly make a Poomsae application.

11: Try to understand the underlying principles. Why does it work?

Each application of every sequence in Poomsae will show you a very specific situation. If you however understand the underlying principles and apply them to fighting you will have a much better chance of "using your Poomsae" than the one who only ever understands that specific situation. If you are Learning a Foreign Language for instance you will perhaps memorize a dialogue to understand and learn aspects of that Language but in real life you will probably not have that excact dialogue so you must move past this stage of learning. The age old saying of giving a man a fish feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and he will have food for the rest of his life also applies here.

12: All applications must work in reality.

Here we need to consider if the application will actually work. Does it consider how you will act under adrenaline rush, fatigue and extreme stress that comes during a fight or does it rely on fine motor skills, complex movement and that you have warmed up beforehand?

I do not think that each and every Key can be related to each and every movement in Taekwondo Poomsae. Taekwondo is still very very close to its martial roots, but it is no longer a carbon copy of Karate. Taekwondo has added many leg techniques for instance and depending on the Poomsae or Tul you are researching you will come accross them and they will not relate to self defense the way I see it. This is my personal opinion of course. Also applying each and every Key to each and every Poomsae is in my view a little flawed. Both because a whole group of People made our own Poomsae and even if one person made each Poomsae without the help or input of the others I do not think that each and every member of that group saw forms quite the same way. Even Karate Kata which these Keys originally refer to were gathered from different people made in different places at different time periods. Therefore I look to these keys for inspiration but I do not dogmatically apply them everywhere and I think that holds true for Karate Kata as much as it holds true for Taekwondo Poomsae.

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  1. Ørjan this is a nice summary of Iain's podcast & his book (for those who haven't read Bunkai Jutsu - Read It! :-D ).

    I also found that our TKD patterns (mostly Taegeuk & Yudanja, less so other sets) do not really conform to the rules as strictly as perhaps intended and I believe it is because they were made more recently with people of different Martial backgrounds.

    In my journey I found that a lot of sequences and their techniques that appeared to contradict with Iain's rules were better understood from a CMA context. Moves that involve what appear to be random jumps and spinning kicks (Cheonkwon, for example) appear frequently in CMA forms and have interesting applications that can relate to using body weight and sudden movements to disarm, take the back and overpower what might be a similarly or even slightly larger opponent. Whilst I cannot say for certain that the Poomsae creators would have understood all contexts it is still a logical assertion based on the fact that not all Masters came from a strict Karate lineage.

    Whilst I haven't formally penned my personal thoughts on the matter just yet, I can safely state that Chil Jang, Pal Jang & Cheonkwon contain a high percentage of CMA sequences & techniques lifted from well known and covered patterns found in various styles of Kung Fu. (I'm currently focusing my studies on these patterns, but there are other techniques in Yudanja Poomsae).

    My point is this: if Iain's rules don't fit then look at CMA. CMA (with the exception of Wushu) is more concerned with SD and I can say based on experience in training with my friend that Kung Fu contains explainations for stuff that looks ludicrous.

    1. I would really love to hear more and learn more about the Chinese applications to the movements:-)

    2. When my friend returns from his Sifu after his vacation I will have more time to go over my assertions from a CMA standpoint. I would enjoy emailing you some of those thoughts in the future.

      I am also trying to avoid writing a full-fledged essay regarding the topic of CMA influence within TKD Poomsae as my first few drafts have gone all over the place. There is way too much here to ignore. I only wish that Koreans would study and publish papers that elucidate common martial heritage rather than the 2000 year myth. Why are foreigners like us more open to the truth in this context? I boggles my mind.

  2. while i can largely agree with most of the above, not everything is as clear cut. i have often felt that the Kukki forms were a mashing together of samples taken from other forms with not a lot of thought given to alternate meanings other than the basics and what kinda looked good. getting everyone to agree to what is in and what is out is never an easy task--took an Roman emperor to knock a few heads around to get the clergy at Nicea to agree on the bible. furthermore it is rare to get something coherent and very functional as well (something about a camel is a horse designed by a committee) it can happen. i studied Toyama Ryu sword, a WWII style that was made in exactly that way, and it works.
    with regard to the CMA styles. i have found them (among other styles) to be very informative as well, but one has to approach with caution. the Wushu stuff has pervaded so much of it that one has to actively work to avoid it. it is very much similar to the way the TKD sport has seeped into so much of what we regard the TKD self defense framework to be.
    while in truth, most of my experience has been in internal stuff (tai-chi, xin-yi,baqua) i have seen it there as well. i have heard really fanciful explanations of moves that really make no sense-take a look at a Tai Chi sword form. if you ever used a sword, you would be hard pressed to figure out just what the hell they are doing.

    so, the reality is, the reality that you can make work in the real world. most of us have not had the years of intense training that the Shaolin monks have, so maybe copying their moves and explanations doesn't help the computer programmer who can train two days a week for an hour. or even and old man like me with two artificial hips.

    1. It is funny you mention the bible because Nat Geo did a great presentation a few years ago where they assert that part of it is a fantastical attempt to rewrite a history that people were unhappy with ( A good watch if you are a history buff regardless of beliefs. To me it somewhat compares to the 2000 year myth business in TKD.

      The disdain for Wushu within Kung Fu circles is similar to the one found whithin TKD from some of us. I have heard this from multiple sources from the Kung Fu community.

      I agree that a lot of what you can make work in the real world is what counts. After all, I think we are trying to find that within our forms and if we cannot find it, at least improve by calling out and creating or reinterpreting forms to be more practical.

      Last note: Tai Chi, although internal, is chock-full of great grappling and offensive stuff (you probably know this anyways) as it has been demonstrated as both exercise and combat to me by my friend. He practices Tai Chi Northern Praying Mantis & Tai Chi. I find that their hand techniques (the style/art in general) release and clarify things we do in TKD that we normally don't understand. It is a beautiful compliment to what we've learned.

  3. yeah , i am steeped in early myths, legends, archeo- astronomy, and bible history. not from a belief standpoint, but i am always interested in how things came to be down through history. this helps with present day TKD and martial arts in general.
    with regard to the tai chi, yes you are right but i have found that most instructors never really teach the combat oriented art. while there are many health benefits of it, most of those (meridian, chi flow) are not really shown either.
    i came to the CMA with a background in applied acupuncture (kyushu/dim mak) so that many of the applications that involving those were easier for me to understand, the big difference was understanding the criticality of structure-the chief difference between the "internal" arts and much of Shaolin in general.
    so yes, they are a great help in understanding. in truth though Xin-Yi is the closest in strategy and spirit to TKD.