Sunday, 12 December 2021

Short discussion on the learning of Poomsae

I have thought about this on and off for a very long time now. Actually I started thinking about this at the very beginning of when it dawned on me how Poomsae contained so much more than block kick punch methods of how to deal with combat. I quickly realized that the most logical way of training and teaching Poomsae was with application being taught first or at least along side the form move for move. This was later "confirmed" or at least some Karate researchers agreed with me (Patrick Mcarthy for instance) that Kata was taught after the applications had been mastered, as a way to remember them and as a solo excersise format. I have sometimes thought that if I ever get to "master level" (that would be 4th Dan in my org) I should start my own Dojang or perhaps take much more responsibility in the one I currently train and study in, and one thing I was wondering was if I should revamp the way we teach Poomsae. I have shared the way I view Taegeuk Il Jang quite extensively so my future students could in theory learn at least one "good" application for each move in the Poomsae with partner drills and live testing of some if not all applications very soon after they started training.

I recently listened to a podcast done by Iain Abernethy where he outlined how he believes Kata should be taught and studdied. I whish for a more poomsae-centric syllabus in the future where we have a clear and logical link and progression from basics to form, to self defense to sparring to breaking. Instead of having Poomsae or forms as one pillar just as much as the other pillars, I would like to have Poomsae as the very foundation which all else is buildt. I want to stress the mediative and health aspects of Poomsae but I also want to stress the practical knowledge we can learn from them. Iain Abernethy does use Kata as the foundation of what he does so I think it is very interesting to hear what he has to say.

Iain Abernethy`s 4 stages of Kata:
  1. Solo form
  2. Applications of the form
  3. Understand the underlying principles
  4. Kata based sparring (live training)
As I understand the stages based on his books, articles and podcasts, his first step is to learn the solo performance of the form. I find it interesting that he chooses this as the first and not second stage to Kata training, since in one of his later podcasts he reveals that the student learns only half a form with the attached partner drills derived from the form up until that point. Seems he is indeed teaching applications side by side with the solo form, but anyway he says that we first learn the solo form.

Second stage he teaches the applications to the forms. Here he has primary applications for each and every move of the form being taught which follows the way the form itself is done.

Third stage he teaches to understand the underlying principles, vary the applications, experiment play around with them and learn why the applications being taught work.

Fourth stage he tests the applications against an uncooperative partner who also tries to test his skills on you. His Kata based sparring is interesting as sparring is something I would really have to revamp if I am ever going to have that clear link between the forms on one side and self defense on the other. The sparring we do at the Dojang I currently study and train in is heavily based on competition sparring, allthough we do use our hands more, there is no grabbing, no sweeps, no grappling and no face punches.

In the Podcast he also quoted Ohtsuka (founder of Wado-Ryu Karate) as saying Karate progresses from Kata to Kumite to Combat. Or from Forms to sparring to combat. I like that quote  a lot and it shows how sparring and forms should be linked together quite nicely. He also quoted Funakoshi as saying "Sparring does not exist apart from kata, but rather for the practise of Kata. Again we see how in the minds of the old masters (the Teachers of the root martial arts of Taekwondo) sparring and forms vere closely linked. I dont remember ever seeing a reference of them stating that forms was the same as sparring, but we see many statements linking the two together. Today this link is hard to see if not non existant. Olympic sparring has evolved so far away from Poomsae that the two are no longer linked to any degree. The individual tactics are different, the strategy is different and even the context is very different.

But how does Iain Abernethy`s 4 stages of Kata compare to how the Kukkiwon Textbook says Poomsae is to be studdied?

(Quote from Kukkiwon Textbook page 306 Training of Poomsae)
1)      Pattern. The first step of training Poomsae is to learn the pattern. Concentration of spirit, eyes, angles of movement must be emphasized in addition to the accuracy of actions.
2)      Significance. In the next step, the emphasis must be laid on the balance, strength and weakness, low or high speed, respiration and Poomsae line. The significance of movements, connection of pooms and the complete Poomsae must be learned correctly.
3)      Practical use. One must adapt what he has learned to his practical use, finding out the practicability.
4)      Self style. One must evaluate his findings about the effectiveness of what he has learned, comparing with his or her bodily structure, speed, strength, impulsive power, point of emphasis in training etc., and  modorate the techniques into his own style.
5)      Completion. One achieves a synthetic accomplishment of Poomsae training bye mastering the art of taekwondo techniques including taekwondo spirit (end quote).

The first stage and second stage both refer to learning the solo performance of the form. The first stage of the form is dealing with the "raw material" learning what techniques to do and when to
do them while the second stage is "finetuning". When do you go fast, and when do you go slow.
Perfecting the balance while shifting in and out of stances, and turning etc. Form most
Taekwondoin this is where it all starts and stops. The rest of the knowledge of how to apply
Taekwondo comes from seperate drills and an unrelated form of sparring, + self defense techinques not linked back to the form.
The third stage is what I find is the hardest one to get to in modern Taekwondo. If you are not taught how to do this you need to take charge of your own Taekwondo Development and do it yourself. This stage is directly linked to the Second of Iain Abernethy`s stage.
 The fourth stage is a very interesting one. Some applications will suit some people more than
others. If you are short and bulky, have above average strength you will not fight like a tall thin
man with below avarage strength. I intepret this stage to be the same as Iain`s stage three in that
you are in fact studying the underlying principles and chose what suits you personally. While the
Kukkiwon Texbook says we should do this, I have never seen any seminar or other resources produced by the Kukkiwon that actually teaches these concepts when it comes to Poomsae training.



  1. And you won't. I too have thought long and hard about how the Kukkiwon treats the forms it promulgates. My teacher had always emphasized the importance of forms, even keeping all of the older MDK ones (which tbh i liked much better)

    Anyway, as i have mentioned before, they really haven't taken the applications to their forms seriously. I have seen their instructor courses where the reasons for the moves are incredibly basic--stuff you would say to a white belt--and that is only when they get around to mentioning application at all.
    I have no say in these organizations, but i have found resistance to application based approach in many schools i have been to. Yet if you give students some solid applications to work with they light up.

    On a personal level, i have started writing about some methods I have found useful in figuring out what these forms can mean. (If interested rough draft is published in my facebook page,
    returning wave)
    I think this is a shameful situation. It has gotten so bad that many of the yudanja forms have lost their function due to aesthetic concerns. Look at the "mountain blocks" in Keumgang. The position of the arms looks good, and you are told to hold them in line with the body, but they don't work that way--looks good though

  2. Good to see you writing again!

    I've often wondered if it's better to teach the form first, the form and the applications simultaneously, or (as some suggest) the applications and THEN the solo form.

    On the one hand, the muscle memory does help. Even if the application is not 100% like the form, knowing the approximate movements makes performing the application easier. I once tried teaching a new student the applications for Chon-Ji before they learned the pattern; I found that without a proper foundation of utilizing the front stance, hip twist, etc they could not perform the techniques with power. Then again, they were an absolute beginner.

    On the other hand, knowing applications makes memorizing the form easier. I know this because for years I practiced forms without any deeper meaning, but once I began studying applications they became easier to repeat because I could visualize what I was doing.

    I too am frustrated at the lack of interest in form applications. Many instructors would prefer to focus on sparring (meaning, kickboxing) for understandable reasons. But I believe they are missing out on something meaningful from taekwondo's history.