Monday, 15 May 2017

Is Keumgang a basic form?

Reading through an online discussion on an old forum the other day I came across question regarding
Palgwae Poomsae or rather who still teaches them. It was an old thread, but one of the first replies came from a 6th Dan school owner who said and I am slightly paraphrasing here:

"We teach Taegeuk and Koryo to black belt level, and then have everyone learn Palgwe 1-8 along with Keumgang for their 2nd Dan. Keumgang is such a basic form to study at that level so they need the additional material".

I am all for perserving history, and allthough I have never formally studdied the Palgwae set, I do see their appeal, and they also represent the first form set made by most of the all Kwan. I used to want to study them, but the more I studied the Taegeuk and all the Judanja (Black belt forms) I was given in Korea, plus now my teachers own creation (Soak Am Ryu Poomsae) and some of the old Kwan forms (most noteably Chulgi Chudan Hyung, Won (Original) Koryo Hyung and Ban Wol Hyung) I have more than enough for a lifetime study. I still might do it one day, but I do not yearn it like I used to do, back when I was a real and truly a forms collector. But how someone can say that Keumgang Poomsae is so basic that it is taught almost as an afterthought is beyond me.

One thing that struck me when learning all of these Judanja forms in Korea was that they did not follow each other logically in terms of performance as the Taegeuk forms do. In fact Koryo Poomsae is a lot harder at least for me to do than both Keumgang and Taebaek. Pyungwon only has one "difficult" part (mirrored so two) in the spinning side kick. Sipjin is likewise a pretty easy form to make it look good, and Jitae too. Chonkwon on the other hand we get a jumping kick which is difficult, and a lot of new technical neuances not seen before or after, so it is difficult to perform. Hansoo follows this which is brief and to the point, It has a new movement floor pattern where you work of 45 degrees, but the techniques themselves has for 99 % of the time been presented in earlier forms. Then enter the Illyo Poomsae which has jumping side kicks, slow executed side kicks with simultanious We Santeul Makki and a lot of other technical neuances and new stuff, It is perhaps the most physical demanding form in the system and it is placed last where you normally would be in your late 60s when you learn it if you only learn forms for your own belt grade.

I`ve talked to a few Korean grandmasters about this issue, and I have asked them if it would not be logical to try to grade the forms in terms of how physically demanding they are to execture where you build up with the Taegeuk forms and Koryo and then teach the more complex and demanding forms first (reaching the height at 4th dan for instance with Illyo), and then gradually do it inverse to the physical effort required to do the form and end it with Keumgang at the top? To my astonishment I have learned that this very thing had not only been discussed by several 9th dans over the years, but that many agreed with my sentiment completly. The natural thing would indeed be to teach the Wae Ki forms (hard to do physical forms) first, and then gradually shift focus to Nae Ki forms (internal focus forms) as you would become more older. Many also agreed that Keumgang should be the last form to learn. The reason why we do not do this today is simply because Taekwondo has spread so far and wide, and it is far to late and difficult to change this. Instead we see more and more teachers making their own forms which do follow this thinking, my own teachers forms the Soak Am Ryu being just one example.

The point of the above paragraph is that: If the Korean grandmasters I have talked to generally agree that Keumgang is in fact a very "advanced" form, then why do we in the west often think of it as the runt of the litter? I think there are generally three things why we in the west think that Keumgang is useless and or basic and its this:

  1. It does not make any sense what so ever in a pure kick block punch paradigm (beyond the first 6 techniques)
  2. It is generally easy to do if you have good balance (exept for keeping the balance there are no apparant physically demanding techniques)
  3. It is the form that is most removed from what people think about fighting/sparring.
1: It does not make any sense what so ever in a pure kick block punch paradigm:
When people ridicule the different blocks of Taekwondo they often dig up the double blocks where we can find one person blocking two different opponent's attacks at the same time. It just so happens that Keumgang Poomsae is the one form that is riddled with these blocks. It is also burdened with sequences that seemingly consist of only blocking which also does not make much sense, and the "hooking punch" with its weird spinnig footwork just seems awfully unpractical. When do you have the time to turn 360 degrees to do a close in hook punch to someones mid section? Now if you change your view and find practical applications everything in the form make PERFECT COMBATIVE SENSE, but only if you study the form. I think people do not understand it because it does not make sense in their block kick punch paradigm, and then judge the form on that basis to be useless, when in fact it is one of the more practical forms in the Taekwondo system (in my own opinion at least).

2: It is generally easy to do if you have good balance. When you reach 1st or 2nd Dan you usually have developed a fair bit of balance and coordination thanks to the high kicking and all the Poomsae you have learned thus far. This means that Keumgang Poomsae that do not require a lot of flexibility, no high or jumping kicks etc is a very straight forward form to learn. Sure there are double blocks in the form, but these will be easy to pick up for someone that has gone throught Taekwondo training for a few years which many will have done at this point. With the fact that many judge the "advancedness" of a form on its difficulty level of solo performance it is no wonder why Keumgang Poomsae is so lowly regarded in the Taekwondo comunity.

3: It is the form that is most removed from what people think about fighting/sparring, People still generally understand forms from a block kick punch paradigm, and most will think that Poomsae generally have little to do with sparring. But even if they do not have much to do with sparring you can extrapolate principles that you can use in sparring. The basic blocks and attacks can be used pretty much as is if you include evasion, footwork and shorten them with no chambers. Keumgang Poomsae on the other hand just seems awfully unpractical. The standing on one leg, slow blocks, double blocks that makes no sense, no kicks, spinning 360 degrees footwork etc it just is not how people fight. One of the first things I do when teaching this form is to have someone move into Hakdari Seogi, Keumgang Arae Makki (One legged stance, simultanious low and high section block) and ask who would ever stand like this or  move into this posture while really fighting? The answer I always get if they have not trained with me is no one would ever ever do that. I then demonstrate one or three different ways to apply this posture and suddenly peoples perception of the form has changed dramatically, even before really learning it. 

When looking at the aforementioned reasons it is understandable that someone might mistake Keumgang to be a basic form, but a 6th Dan should have studied their system to the point where they knew better. To me it sounds like he has fallen into the three "traps" above, and that he teaches his forms as busy-work for students. I could be wrong of course, but this is not a post on this guy per se, it is about the general mainstreams view of Keumgang Poomsae. I think I have gathered the main points above so I thought I should give you some of the reasons why the grandmasters I had spoken to found it to be an advanced form.

Poomsae can be divided up into different groups depending on their inherent nature. Some are more defensive than others and might fall into a "Makki-centric group", others might have a lot of practical strikes in them (not jireugi but Chigi) and therefore fall into a "Chigi-centered group". The notion that Keumgang is "advanced" has the forms of Kukki-Taekwondo divided into a Nae-ki and Wae-ki group. "Ki" is something I have touched on several times as it is difficult to keep away from this aspect of Korean culture when discussing many things in our training. Kihap, Hapki and the Chumbi seogi being a few of the things I have written of that touch on this matter. Ki can for this post`s sake be defined as "vital energy", and it can be divided into two groups as you might have understood by now; Wae-Ki which is outward Ki and Nae-Ki which is inner ki. Wae-Ki is often regarded as physical strength, or "Hard-Ki". It is what you use, see and observe in running, weightlifting, jumping etc. Nae-Ki, inner ki or soft ki on the other hand is much more difficult to define and describe. For this post's sake I will define it as the strength of the mind and spirit, or the link between the mind and body. If you look at Taegeuk il (1) Jang that is the quintessential Wae-Ki Poomsae. Even the Gwe it is based on (Keon) is the symbol of pure Yang energy. It consists of basic techniques and it is to be performed in a "hard" manner with a lot of upright stances. Contrast this with Keumgang Poomsae that is done with rooted stances (even the one legged stances has the head at the same height as the long front walking stance or Apkoobi), has a lot of slow movements and deep abdominal breathing all no where to see in Taegeuk Il (1) Jang. In many ways Keumgang is pretty opposite Taegeuk Il (1) Jang is it not? So if Taegeuk Il (1) Jang is a Wae-Ki form it is easy to determine that Keumgang Poomsae is a Nae-Ki form. 

The attitude I have often encountered in the east is that Wae-Ki is simple and easy, but Nae-Ki is difficult to cultivate, and there lies the reason why Keumgang Poomsae is so highly regarded by Korean masters, while in the west it is seen as useless and basic. The Danjun Hohup (Abdominal breathing exersices) that lies within Keumgang linking body, movement and mind together in one cultivated wholeness is very profound, and you could do an indepth study on this aspect alone, not even touching on the applications of the form. Breathing and the control of breath is the quickest way to tap into your mind. If you get scared you breath fast and shallow, if you are relaxed you breathe slowly and deep. Try to become scared or angry while concentrating on doing deep breathing. It is impossible. This is where the "count to 10" trick originally comes from. We have always known it that controlling the breath is the fastest way to control our mind, even in the west. You do not really need to take all the cultural baggage with "Ki" into the picture to understand this. It is simple science and it is something we have always known in the west. Keumgang Poomsae was made in Korea by Korean people so the culural baggage of "Ki" must at some point be taken into consideration if you are to understand its philosophical underpinnings, but you do not need to embrace the belief on Ki if you do not want to. 

So is Keumgang a basic form? I dont think so. I agree with the Korean grandmasters I have spoken to about the form, and I also agree that Wae-Ki is simpler to develop than Nae-Ki. I also do not hold the notion that you can designate how basic or advanced a traditional form is depending on the difficulty of the solo performance of that form.There are so many other considerations to be made. The solo performance of the form is just the basic starting point, it is not where the true depth of Poomsae lies. 

I hope I have been able to shed a little light on a topic that I do not think many people have discussed in any depth online before and I will certainly have another go on "ki" later on, because this post did not really do it justice :-)

I hope to provide much more video content to this blog in the future. I have therefore set up a GoFundMe page on which I hope I can crowdfund a video editing software so I can make good quality videos for the blogs readers. If you want to contribute please visit the link to my GoFundMe page. Every donation helps :-)


  1. interesting to hear this. for the most part i have never heard much mention of the chi kung aspects of any of the Korean forms, even from first generation masters. I am not quite sure how much of this is actually emphasized, especially in the way they are usually performed and instructed.
    I am aware of these aspects that are embedded in such things as Tai-Chi, albeit that it does demand a change in mental focus, but take something like Xin-Yi (an art conceptually much closer to TKD) that moves so fast that the Chi-Kung is a separate exercise.
    with regard to Keumgang though, it has always been a favorite of mine. So refreshing to find a Kukki form that has no kicks, and a dearth of punches. it was actually one of the first forms that i bothered to teach apps for because most practitioners were so unaccustomed to finding any meaning at all in it. after a session that would have them learning to break arms, necks, Kyushu knockouts, etc.---they would never look at their forms the same way again.

    also, for a different perspective i would like to refer you to this article:「踏み込み足」上級者向け稽古/

    1. It is practised a lot by those who emphasise it, and not at all by those who were never taught and or do not care :-) The masters I spoke to had the Ki-gung part of the forms as part of "their" Taekwondo, but I have yet to meet a master or speak to one who has this part of forms training their primary aim. Many have also expressed that this is a part of the students personal jurney so I do not know how much emphasis is done in mainstream training if any. In my own education (from my teachers) I have been taught pretty much from the start that there are ki-gung aspects of the forms we practise, but even then in everyday training this has been taught in a basic way. I've learned much more by asking my teacher when we have had 1-1 time about this aspect than I have in Dojang practise.

      There are remnants of this in the Kukkiwon Textbook and in other Poomsae books though, particulary in the sections of Poomsae where we breathe and move slowly.

      Keumgang has always fascinated me for as long as I've trained. The slow and fast movements, the spins, the lack of high kicks etc. In my opinion it is a form that is screaming out to the students too look deeper.

      Thanks for the link. It was thought-provocing :-)

  2. Keumg ang is a great form. I don't think it is necessarily boring. I think it takes a lot of skill and grace to perform. There are actual self defense applications for each movement believe it or not. People do not have enough teachers who show these techniques and it is annoying. I got better at this form in Korea and my instructor in Korea helped me a lot. I still feel like I am not good at it though.

    There is a lot of great exercise benefits to the deep breathing and slow motion things in martial arts. Keumgang also has applications against 2 attackers grabbing you on each side and some other cool things. It is not easy to perform.

    I still think it is perfecetly fine at 2nd dan. I don't see why we should change it.

    Pal gwe on the other hand are so great and fun to do. You should learn them just for the heck of it. I am lucky to have always learned them and over the years updated them on portions where my old instructor had them wrong. By video and looking at books. But there is video online from a Kukkiwon grandmaster I followed to fix any mistakes. I have always done them my entire TKD life. I teach them and make people learn a tae geu and pal gwe for each other. I also want to teach original Koryo for black belt as well as Koryo.

    I plan to make some fun videos teaching every form I know but it will be over time. I will do pal gwes in due time. do have videos of me doing some pal gwel forms though even in Korea in a park.