THE POOMSAE THEY ARE A-CHANGIN'
HOW TAEKWONDO ADAPTS ITS FORMS TO MEET THE NEEDS OF MILLIONS OF STUDENTS AROUND THE WORLD
Long ago — in 1963 — a singer/songwriter named Bob Dylan ushered in a new era of thinking with an anthem titled The Times They Are a-Changin’. The song proved both potent and prescient. A fresh wind no doubt was blowing at the time, and it was favoring the eager minds of young people worldwide. Wars were disputed, racial discrimination was challenged and social taboos were tossed. Sadly, leaders were assassinated, countries were divided along political lines and cities went up in flames. Teens turned on and elders turned off to the ideological revolution.
But opposing this intellectual and cultural upheaval proved as pro- ductive as trying to push back the ocean with a broom. Change came and, slowly but surely, evolved into the new normal with many of the affected youngsters later landing in leadership roles.
It’s often said that taekwondo mirrors life, for our training clearly reflects the peaks and valleys we experience in our daily routines. Furthermore, our outlook on our art is molded by the personal biases, physical capabilities and social interactions we’ve accumulated over the years. How we accept technical and philosophical alterations to the style is a direct result of how flexible we are in life.
Taekwondo is an animal of change and always has been. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the sportive aspects of the discipline as evidenced by the performances at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Further evidence of this facet of the Korean art’s personality can be found in the evolution of its forms, called poomsae, hyung or teul. These formal-exercise sets represent the central pillars of the traditional taekwondo curriculum, and when they change, it’s nothing short of earth shattering.
Tremors in the art first became apparent in the 1950s and early ’60s when taekwondo — still referred to as tang soo do, kong soo do and, for a short time, tae soo do — was in its
infancy. During this period, formal- exercise practice consisted largely of forms divined from Okinawan, Japanese and Chinese disciplines. As a result, the founding fathers of the original Korean kwan couldn’t help but transmit to their students the thinly disguised kata they’d learned abroad while their nation staggered under the Japanese occupation (1910-1945).
Nevertheless, a strong desire existed among many masters, Gen. Choi Hong Hi not being the least, to create patterns with a distinctly Korean flavor. Consequently, when he founded the International TaekwonDo Federation in 1966, he was quick to part ways with the past by creating the chang hon forms. They were developed starting in 1955 and not completed until 1988, during which time Choi was assisted by Tae Hi Nam, Young Il Kong, Cha Kyo Han, Chang Keun Choi, Jae Lim Woo, Kim Bok Man and Jung Tae Park.
Following Choi’s exodus from South Korea in 1972 and the eventual entrenchment of the Korea Taekwondo Association, coupled with the establishment in 1973 of the World Taekwondo Federation by a younger generation of practitioners who weren’t directly exposed to Japanese karate instruction, three revolutionary sets of forms were developed. It took eight years, during which effort was aimed at eliminating any vestige of foreign influence from the emerging art. Two of them were the palgwe and yudanja series. These forms were designed to test the proficiency of color-belt students and black belts, respectively.
Partially inspired by Japan’s pinan/ heian kata, the eight palgwe poomsae reflect philosophical doctrines culled from the ancient Book of Changes, or I Ching. They tend to emphasize low stances and effective hand techniques. The component moves increase in complexity as the practitioner advances, providing a barometer for his or her skill level.
Crafted concurrently with the palgwe forms, the yudanja poomsae included original koryo, keumgang, taebaek, pyongwon, sipjin, jitae, cheonkwon, hansoo and ilyo. With the exception of original koryo, they’re still sanctioned by Kukkiwon and the WTF. Thiss virtual stew of formal exercises must have excited some students, but at the same time, it must have fostered frustration in those who dislike learning new things as they advance.
As noted above, however, taekwondo is the child of change, and the art continued to evolve no matter what some thought. Even today, technical enhancements are evident at almost every major training venue in Korea. Whether it’s at a university that offers “taekwondology” as a major, at the Kukkiwon or at the new Taekwondowon, the quest for modernization proceeds. And so it should come as no surprise that less than a decade after the introduction of palgwe, a committee decided that a new series of formal exercises, in conjunction with a revised version of original koryo, needed to be generated. The wheel of innovation, oiled by fresh minds, turned yet again.
UPHEAVAL OF ADOLESCENCE
Born in 1972, the taegeuk poomsae, by decree, effectively replaced the palgwe set, becoming the de facto formal exercises of modern taekwondo. In a practical sense, taegeuk were exceptional in that they contained the upright, high-forward or walking stance and featured a greater percentage of kicks than their forerunners. These adaptations became necessary as taekwondo began to evolve into a combat sport with Olympic aspirations. Clearly, a method was required to teach and support the upright fighting posture used in sparring
competition, and these new poomsae satisfied that need.
Concurrently with the creation of the taegeuk series, original koryo was superseded by a new poomsae bearing the same name. Opening dramatically with a knifehand block in a back stance and followed by two side kicks of different heights, the restructured koryo form was deemed sufficiently challenging for black belts and, therefore, a worthy vehicle for gauging proficiency before promotion to second dan. Still, many masters rejected the notion of change, continuing to feature both the palgwe poomsae and original koryo in their curricula. (Interestingly, their actions are now viewed as beneficial because they preserved these unique forms for posterity.)
The Korean eum/yang ( yin/yang in Chinese) predicts constant change along with its gradual acceptance. It’s not surprising, therefore, that in 2007 two revolutionary poomsae were introduced by the Kukkiwon hierarchy. Christened bigak and hanryu, these forms were not only intended for competitive purposes but also segregated, for the first time, by age group. Bigak would be for practitioners 40 and younger, while hanryu would be for those older than 40.
Fast-forward to the present: Another seismic shift is underway, and for those who support the notion of traditional taekwondo, it maxes out on the Richter scale. Ten new poomsae have been introduced at Taekwondowon. They, too, are age-specific. The series begins with himchari and yamang for students younger than 18; saebyeol, nareusya and, again, bigak for those older than 18 but younger than 30; eoullim and saeara for those in their 30s and 40s; and hansol, narae and onnuri for those in their 50s and 60s.
Not surprisingly, more than a few questions have arisen in the wake: How will these poomsae be accepted by Kukkiwon followers worldwide? Will they replace the current taegeuk and yudanja series? Given the fact that they’ve been designated as competition forms, should practical combat applications be considered as they have been in other forms? Do they balance innovative skills with traditional techniques, or are the aesthetic and gymnastic aspects of paramount concern? Who will learn these forms and, more important, who will possess the ability to teach them?
In the search for answers, the complexity of the new poomsae must be analyzed. Judging from the videos that have been released, they’re chal- lenging to perform at best, given the inclusion of jumping, spinning and multiple in-place kicks. Clearly, careful thought has been given to the age breakdown. Still, it’s evident that the new poomsae will be difficult to teach, particularly for the mature master. Instruction will likely be provided by younger, and lessexperienced, teachers.
At least for now, it appears that the taegeuk poomsae will be unaffected by the debut of the new series. And that’s good: During a recent tour to Korea, reliable sources said that Kukkiwon is attempting to launch an initiative to boost adult participation in taekwondo. Whether it materializes or not, the effort would be compromised if the taegeuk series was eclipsed by these complex forms, particularly because the majority of adults find poomsae practice the most appealing part of training.
Additionally, those who train in traditional taekwondo do so not merely for the physical aspects of the art but also for the spiritual, philosophical and meditative benefits. Steering taekwondo in a purely competitive direction, even though that’s where it’s headed today in some schools, would drive this portion of the population away rather than draw it in, and that would further divide the art.
TO THE FUTURE
Each in its own way, the new poomsae offer a snapshot of taekwondo as it exists today, supporting an abundance of dramatic kicking techniques somewhat offset by traditional skills such as the twist kick and ridgehand. The forms likely will take root with those who have a competitive spirit, serving an aspirational role for a younger generation of martial artists who are thirsty to perform.
While I see great value in the taegeuk, palgwe and yudanja forms, not to mention the traditional Moo Duk Kwan forms and karate-kataturned-hyung that many taekwondo practitioners continue to do, it’s clear that the art needs a standardized set of forms so it can be formally showcased. And these advanced poomsae just might fit the bill.
For now, they seem to be intended to ignite interest through competition on the international stage — not
as it has been merely through sparring, which appears to have lost some luster, but through the acrobatic, dance-like performance of a timehonored martial tradition, albeit with tools recently forged.
Just as Bob Dylan felt the winds of change irresistibly blowing his way and caressed them through song rather than walling them off with intransigence, we should refrain from indiscriminately repelling this innovation. Taekwondo, in order to retain its position as one of the world’s premier martial arts, will need to evolve just as it has since its inception.
In observing these poomsae, himchari through onnuri, it becomes obvious that their creators have pushed far beyond the current standards. Each new pattern has raised the bar in comparison to its predecessors. Some of us will appreciate them from afar, our aging bodies enthusiastic but unable to engage — even though some will undoubtedly try because of that indomitable will that’s cultivated by taekwondo training. Others will internalize each movement, forging it to near perfection while integrating the whole into their competitive routines in hopes of notoriety. And who knows? Perhaps with the introduction of these forms, poomsae might become part of Olympic taekwondo one day.
For the remainder of us who revere tradition — still a staggeringly significant demographic — we’ll continue practicing the classical poomsae, preserving them for future generations while recognizing the importance of innovation. We’ll practice our forms with an eye on the combat applications encoded within their movements. We’ll view them as moving meditation. And we’ll educate ourselves through the philosophical and historical perspectives they convey. We’ll do that regardless of brand because as the late grandmaster Richard Chun used to say, “Without poomsae, there is no taekwondo.”
TAEKWONDO, IN ORDER TO RETAIN ITS POSITION AS ONE OF THE WORLD’S PREMIER MARTIAL ARTS, WILL NEED TO EVOLVE JUST AS IT HAS SINCE ITS INCEPTION.