“Do not lose control even when provoked. If you do, you might hit out and that could be very dangerous. You could end up killing somebody,” declared Tae Kwon Do Instructor 3rd Dan Black Belt Daniel Russ Gurung. He was addressing his class of thirty students after the exercises were over for the day. Plainly, his words were directed towards those in the first row, which included me. “And then, you might be taken to jail for the next 20 years of your life,” he added, determined to make his message loud and clear.
Instructor Daniel was not kidding. He spoke with the utmost seriousness. I guess he must have thought it his responsibility to do so. The reason for his grave words now was because five of us had become Red Belts, perhaps the most dangerous phase in a Tae Kwon Do practitioner’s life. It is the time when a student is at the peak of his powers. It is the time when his punches are lethal, his kicks devastating, his ridge hand strikes deadly, and his blocks, as paralyzing as his attacks. At the Red Belt stage, the student is well armoured both physically and mentally – this armour fortified further by the confidence built up through long hours of strenuous and disciplined exercises over the past three years. His every step now will be directed with single minded devotion towards the fulfillment of the deep and yearning desire to earn the ultimate accolade – the coveted Black Belt.
Art First, Sport Later
There are tens of thousands of Black Belts around the world today as there must be hundreds in Nepal but just like in any other sphere of activity, not all are equal. A Black Belt usually entitles you to be an instructor, and that is what many do, but again, not all instructors are equal. I was fortunate to have had a man like Daniel Russ Gurung as my teacher for three years. He epitomized the true martial artist. The true martial artist? Well yes, as opposed to those who practice the art not as an art but, more as a sport. Now one may well ask, what has this got to do with making Tae Kwon Do into less of an art? It is simple, once this Korean martial art became an Olympic sport some years ago (in 2000) it began to be viewed as a means to enhance countries’ prestige by winning more medals. Thus, gradually, the art began to be taught less as an art form and as more of a sporting activity, with training methods geared towards scoring valid points and avoiding being hit and thus losing points. One can compare Tae Kwon Do’s passage through time with our schools’ one point program – that is, to enhance schools’ reputations by their students doing well in the School Leaving Exams. There are many who decry that education has become less of a wholesome one and more of an exam related one. Similarly, Tae Kwon Do, a martial art, has now become less of an exotic art and more of a potentially medal winning sport.
Thank God, when I was practising Tae Kwon Do, it wasn’t an Olympic sport yet. As we understood it then, it was an art that had to be learned through sincere dedication and deep desire. Many might not know about Daniel Russ Gurung, but almost everybody knows about Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee. They too are true martial artists, although of martial forms other than Tae Kwon Do. Bruce Lee was the uncontested idol of almost every practising martial artist then. His moves were sure and deadly and the camera assisted in making them still more dramatic. His film, ‘Enter the Dragon’ was an inspirational film for people like us. But, even without Bruce Lee and his dramatics, for me personally, being taught by a man like Daniel Russ Gurung was enough motivation. And the rigid discipline he endowed us with through his consistent exhortations in class, was the foundation on which our own strength was built upon. Discipline that was manifested not only in our external behavior but also inside of ourselves as well. Finding the balance between our strength and our limitations was an ongoing struggle and discipline allowed us to accept what could not be done and discipline pushed us to explore the limits of our abilities.
A Way of life
“Always be humble. Humility is a prerogative of the strong,” Instructor Daniel used to lecture us often. “The more powerful you become, the humbler you must be.” Such constant discourses served to embed deep into our minds, the great virtue of humility and certainly, there have been many, many times in life’s journey when it has served me well. Discipline, humility, self restraint, and chivalrous behavior were the bywords we lived by. Camaraderie was a given amongst us. Confidence was evident in the way we walked, the way we behaved and the way we conducted ourselves generally. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in those days, we who practiced Tae Kwon Do with utmost dedication had an aura around us. This aura a blessing of the art we practiced, and an art that actually became a way of life with us.
“Tae Kwon Do is not something that you can learn just by attending two hour classes each day,” Instructor Daniel used to say. “Tae Kwon Do must be a way of life with you and on your minds every minute and every second of your life. Tae Kwon Do must be there with you when you eat, when you study, when you sleep. Be always aware that you are first and foremost a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do before anything else.” And, yes, Tae Kwon Do did pervade every aspect of our lives and its high values made us sharper in mind and surer in our actions thus helping us to be better at whatever we were doing at the moment. “Wherever and whenever you meet another Tae Kwon Do practitioner, remember that the junior must bow first and the senior must reciprocate similarly,” he used to tell us. “It is not the person you are showing respect to by bowing. You are demonstrating respect to Tae Kwon Do by doing so.” Such was our art, such were our principles.
Our classes always began and ended with a few minutes of meditation. We knelt with our opens palms lying face down on our thighs. There would be absolute silence as each of us tried to empty our minds of the events of the day so as to leave a blank slate for what was to be learnt in the next two hours. Then we got up as one and at the instructor’s command began our warm up exercises in as perfect synchronization as possible. At first it is easy going, more of a limbering and stretching routine, not much of strenuous effort required. This was followed by the exercises for the legs and was more arduous. In Korean, tae means ‘to strike or break with foot’; kwon means ‘to strike or break with fist’; and do means ‘way’ or ‘method’. Actually, Tae Kwon Do is renowned for its kicking techniques – front kicks, side kicks, roundhouse kicks, spinning kicks, hammer kicks, flying kicks, spinning flying kicks, etc. etc. Therefore, leg exercises, which include stretching, are pretty detailed and exhausting. “You must be able to eat using your feet, and wipe your behind with them,” Instructor Daniel was fond of joking.
Kicking Away To Glory
Our kicking routines were the toughest of all and required immense determination and perseverance. Kicking well did not mean only power, it meant speed and balance in equal measure. In time, I myself found myself so comfortable with my legs that neither high heels nor slippery surfaces could hamper me from delivering high kicks again and again, swiftly and with great power. Perfect balance was what gave me the confidence to deliver even high spinning kicks repeatedly on any surface and any time I wished to. To attain the needed flexibility to execute high kicks, our training included a lot of stretching work outs. It must be mentioned here that not everyone is endowed with similar suppleness, thus, some can stretch out their legs perfectly in a horizontal line, while there are those that have difficulty in even achieving a respectable level of horizontality while stretching. In any case, the regular work outs, mostly done in pairs so that one could push down and assist in the stretching, does always succeed in making even those less flexible, more agile. Besides flexibility, in Tae Kwon Do, every attacking move is accomplished as speedily as possible so that one is ready to repeat the attack again immediately. Every attacking move is done with the knowledge that one is also vulnerable to a counterattack during the move, so the emphasis is on great speed. Our flying and flying spinning kicks were the highlights of our demonstrations which we gave regularly to acquaint the public with our art. We flew high over eight stooped bodies and smashed two inch planks with the edge of our feet, sometimes spinning our bodies spectacularly in mid flight.
Tae Kwon Do kicks are devastating. “Remember that your legs are at much heavier than your arms and longer too,” our instructor used to say. “So, if you can gain control over them, and learn to use them as taught, you are at a very great advantage over any opponent. You can strike from afar and the opponent has less capacity to retaliate,” At the 6th World Tae Kwon Do Championships in Denmark I watched a fight between a Korean and a Saudi Arabian. The latter was all fire and brimstone and leapt to and fro delivering exploratory kicks constantly. The Korean, with his hooded eyes and expressionless face, moved back and aside effortlessly without throwing a single kick. Then, ‘Wham’, as the Saudi was delivering maybe the 10th of his kicks, this, a roundhouse to the face, the Korean executes a spinning kick with such grace and precision that it leaves one breathless. The Saudi falls to the ground like a felled log. The heel of the Korean has smashed into his left eye socket with great velocity. His eye is already black and blue and beginning to swell. He is taken away on a stretcher, out cold. A perfect example of the perfect Tae Kwon Do kick – a lethal combination of speed, power, precision and balance.
The Martial Art of Tae Kwon Do
After leg and kicking exercises we began on our hand routines. We punched again and again, our fists twisting their way fast and powerfully from our waists, accelerating through the air and landing at imaginary points denoting the face and the mid section. Day after day, we learnt to hit at the same place again and again and our speed and power increased greatly with time. Punching well did not mean only power, it also meant precision and placement. We learnt about the most vulnerable points of the face and the body and practiced repeatedly to make sure that our punches landed at the right spots all the time. Tae Kwon Do is an art in which every blow or kick or chop is deadly, delivered with immense velocity and power. Thus, much energy is expended, so that one strives to be precise with every blow or kick. The logic is simple – a single Tae Kwon Do kick or punch must be deadly enough to put the opponent out of action. And, since the punches are so strong, it is necessary to make sure that one does not injure one’s hands through the law of ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’. For example, try hitting a brick wall with your fist and you will see that the harder you hit, the more you hurt.
So, we did things to make our hands into tough weapons. We learned to make the perfect fist – the four fingers curled tightly into the palm with the thumb placed as tightly over them. No loose ends. At first, the fingers dug into our palms and it hurt. Gradually one could notice the presence of calluses on the palm where the finger tips dug in and it hurt less and less before disappearing with time. When we punched, the blows twisted their way in a very straight line (the fastest way to reach somewhere is by going in a straight line, and as for the twisting, think of how a bullet travels through the barrel of a gun). At the full stretch of the arms, the flat of the back of the fist along the knuckle head was always in perfect alignment with the wrist, so that no matter how hard the surface where our punch landed, the tight fist and the perfect alignment ensured that our hands were not hurt even when the punch was executed with full intensity. And this was how it was supposed to be in the art of Tae Kwon Do. Every blow had to be destructive, that was what we were training for.
Fists of Fury
And, oh yes, when we hit, we hit with the first two knuckles of the fist (this guaranteed precision and besides, if you hit using a smaller surface area there is more power). For example, a lance tip will penetrate skin, muscle and bone, a flat tip will not. Within a few months of starting training, our first two knuckles were usually callused if not bleeding still. This was due to the countless knuckle push ups we did in class every day as well as each night before sleeping and in the morning after awakening. At first there was much bleeding, then shedding of skin, then bleeding again and again, until finally, extremely tough calluses were formed on our knuckles. The effects of the knuckle push ups were further supplemented by punching the hard gym bag routinely. The time came when our fists had become mighty weapons of destruction and we could punch through two-inch thick planks with ease.
How destructive our fists and our punches had become became clear to me once when I was still a Green Belt. A fight broke out in a restaurant I was in at one time. A gang of some ten rowdies had taken offense to something the waiter had said or done and they had surrounded and started to thrash the life out of the poor fellow. I intervened and to set things right quickly, threw two controlled punches at two of them which had them kissing the walls. Then they came for me. I hit the one who seemed most threatening with a full intensity punch to the face. I don’t know, but the way I executed that punch must have been really impressive because they all froze as one. I don’t know exactly how I looked throwing that punch because it was a completely reflexive action, but besides being obviously an impressive performance, it was totally devastating. The guy I hit was unconscious while still on his feet and he fell backwards like a felled tree. The next thing I knew, the rest of them had all left the scene. Nobody wants to be hit like that I guess. Someone later told me that the poor fellow’s face had swollen up to double its size. I had punched him where I was trained to do – right at the junction between his mouth and his nose, a very delicate spot if you ask me.
Besides the punch and the kicks, we were trained to toughen up our ridge hands which we used for chopping to the neck, the bridge of the nose, and other soft parts of the body. We did this by constantly hitting a hard surface with the edge of our hands and against each other regularly, so that in time, we could break bricks with them without any discomfort. We also used the edge of the hand on the thumb side (opposite ridge hand) and these too were made tough with similar exercises. I have used this side of the hand to break piles of hard tiles at many demonstrations. By and by, our whole hands had become deadly weapons – including our fingers. The one thing I remember about my first interview for a job later on in life was when I was signing some papers and the interviewee remarked, “You have got very strong fingers”. I didn’t tell him that those fingers had sliced through one and a half inch planks on many occasions. How did our fingers become weapons? Simple – we did finger push ups and hit the punching bag with our finger tips during training. First we used all fingers for push ups, then gradually three, then two, then one, and finally, only the thumbs. Grueling? You bet it was.
Tae Kwon Do also teaches one the art of close combat, meaning if someone grabs you, then you know what to do. And it is not as one would usually expect, that one just frees oneself from the opponent’s grip. No, in Tae Kwon Do, close combat means using the other’s grappling actions to your advantage by responding in such a way as to immobilize him, or more often, break a few of his bones. For instance, if someone grabs you by the throat with two hands, what a Tae kwon Do practitioner does is this : he takes hold of one of his opponent’s hands and twists it outwards with the thumb firmly in his grip. The twisting movement outwards breaks the attacker’s elbow joint and all the while, because you have a firm hold on his thumb joint, he is totally in your control. Needless to say, the grip on your throat has already been broken because an attacker cannot squeeze your throat with one hand only. This is just an example of our close combat tactics, there are many, foe instance what if he grabs you from behind, or across your body, or your hand, or your lapels, your hair, and so on. Suffice it to say that woe will befall those who try to grapple with a well trained Tae Kwon Do practitioner.
Close combat does not exactly comprise of defensive techniques in Tae Kwon Do. Similarly, our blocking techniques were also really not completely of a defensive nature. Our blocks were conducted with the intention to discourage any more attacks. Thus, if someone threw a punch at you, you did not step back to retreat. You stepped back sideways (the side stance with the front leg slightly cocked and most of the body weight on the back foot) and your hands move up from their position at the waist in a fast movement so that the edge of the blocking hand hits the inside of the opponent’s attacking hand’s wrist with speed and power. The effect is numbing, to the attacker that is. Painful too, because what you have hit is one of the slender bones, probably with a nerve running along it. So, the numbness. Another move to decapacitate the attacker was to move sideways in a horse riding stance, use both hand edges to strike his stretched arm, one edge hitting the wrist and the other the elbow. The former has a similar effect as described above, and the latter movement can dislocate the elbow joint. Tae Kwon Do is not really what one would say, an art for self defense, as martial arts are usually referred to. Perhaps one could justify it as one by taking recourse to the age old principle that says, ‘a good offense is the best defense’.
Balance, Focus and Concentration
And now, we come to one of the most important aspects of Tae Kwon Do – that to do with concentration. Our meditations at the beginning and at the end of exercises of course were part of the training to develop concentration, but that was not the only thing. Every move we made when training required concentration. Balance required one to be totally focused so that even when kicking very high and very fast the sole of our standing leg did not leave the ground even a quarter of an inch. Often it is the case that one is tempted to gain more power by swiveling on a narrower point, which means lifting the feet a little and turning on a heel. This is a temptation that we learnt to avoid through focus and concentration. Concentration was needed to direct our attacks to the most vulnerable parts of the body and in this, as well as in other moves such as when delivering spinning kicks, our minds were as sharp as were our eyes. We learnt to turn our heads very swiftly so that our eyes could pinpoint targets and be aware of dangers instantaneously, and our minds could already visualize the conclusion of our moves even as our legs or hands were on the way to deliver their devastating messages. Thus, our exercises laid a good deal of emphasis on neck exercises too as well as on flexibility. And concentration at all times.
Whatever it may be referred to as, one should be clear on one aspect of Tae Kwon Do – it is first and foremost as good an art form as any. And the various ‘patterns’ (pumsae) we practiced every day is an additional factor to reinforce this fact. We had to practice them day after day until the time came when all thirty of us moved as one. Each blow, each kick and each block had to be executed with power, speed, precision and control. Our stances at all times would have to be perfect, whether it was the front stance, the back stance, the horse riding stance, etc. Balance was the key for correct action and agility, the foundation for spectacular moves.
All that is now left to be said is that Tae Kwon Do is a wonderful martial art, in that it gives you humility born out of confidence (an aura if you are really devoted), agility, swiftness and grace. Tae Kwon Do is equally, a deadly art; in that it gives you strength, power, lethality and makes you a dangerous man to be up against with. All this, a Tae Kwon Do practitioner can hope to gain if he practices it with dedication and perseverance. Nevertheless, with the passage of time, there have been changes that have not been all for the good, at least in my view. For instance, training sessions nowadays are more focused towards only winning points in competitions and since kicks get most of the points and not so punches, less attention is paid to the hand techniques. How far reaching such changes have been can be best illustrated by an incident at a friend’s wedding party some years ago. He was a Tae kwon Do instructor and so there were many practitioners at the party. I was one of them. I sat with a couple of them; they had represented the country many times. They were good. One of them looked at my hands and referring to my still callused knuckles, commented, “Sir, are those to scare people or what?” I, in return, looked at his hands. They were as soft and smooth as a woman’s.