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.


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.


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.”


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