Taegeuk Poomsae: Childrens Taekwondo?

Although the post below (writen by guest author Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan WTF Taekwondo), relates to WTF Taekwondo, much of can equally apply to other martial arts especially Karate.  In Taekwondo, Karate and even Kung Fu, many original applications have been dumbed down and misunderstood by the mainstream practitioners.  In this interesting and informative article, Ørjan answers many of the criticism levelled at WTF Taekwondo’s early Poomsae (patterns/forms/kata).

The Taegeuk series of Poomsae are the basic patterns used to grade through the coloured belts and as Ørjan points out are often referred to as “children’s Taekwondo”.  To any Karateka reading this, doesn’t that sound familiar?  The same has often been said of our Heian/Pinan series of Kata.

I will confess that I have been guilty in the past of some of making some of the criticism that Ørjan addresses, but his article below has made me think again.  I hope you all enjoy this article and that it changes your outlook as it has mine.

So . . . . . . over th Ørjan:

 

When asked about the charachteristics of Taegeuk poomsae, most WTF exponents or people with passing knowledge of the forms will probably describe them as: “simple”, “frequent use of high stances”, “boring”, and many will perhaps even say that they are for children.

The Taegeuk forms were made in the early to mid seventies. According to “The Taegeuk Cipher” (by Simon John O`Neill) they were introduced in 1972 to replace the earlier Palgwe forms. The motivation for making the Taegeuk patterns is stated to be part politically motivated (since not all the original School/Kwan was represented by the forms comittee that were responsible for the Palgwe and WTF black belt forms), and partially because the Palgwe had too obvious Karate influences. No matter what their motivations were, they were designed specifically for color belts training and they have a very clear progress of difficulty.

Maybe the clear progress of difficulty and that they were designed for color belts (as stated in most official WTF/Kukki Taekwondo writings) coupled with the three first patterns great use of short/high walking stance is the reasons why many people will say they are for children.

This article will hopefully show the readers that the Taegeuk are more than merely “childrens Taekwondo” and that the techniques they contain can be used as effective self defence once they are fully understood.

The high/short walking stance (Ap seogi in Korean):

The first three patterns favor the use of Ap seogi. Ap seogi is excecuted by moving one foot one walking step distance in front of the other. The front foot is pointing directly forward, the back foot is pointing about 30 degrees outward. The legs are straightned and the weight distributuion is 50% on each leg. Your whole body is facing the front (ap seogi means front stance in English).

This stance is often ridiculed by other stylists because it lacks power and beacuse it is too unstable to be used in a fight. They are somewhat correct if you look at the stance just as a single unit and not as a part of the whole picture. The Ap seogi stance is perhaps the most natural stance used in the martial arts since this is the stance we use everyday for moving (walking). In patterns training we are told that the legs should be straight (at least in the end-portion of the stance) but if you bend your knees just a little and keep your hands high (boxing guard) tuck in your chin, you will be in a typical “Boxing stance”. Actually because of the stances naturality; variations on the Ap seogi is used by most combat sports in one way or another all around the world. It is hard not to use it since as previous stated it is the stance humans use most often to move around. Where it lacks in stability and power it makes up for speed and mobility.

Taekwondo Ap Seogi

Figure 1 Ap seogi used in Gumdo. (Source: masterjosetorres.com)

Taekwondo Ap Seogi 1

Figure 2: Ap sogi used in boxing (Source: James E Homans, New American Encyclopedia of Social and Commercial Information)

In the last five forms in the Taegeuk pattern set the Ap seogi is almost not used at all. They use more “long forward front stance” (Ap Koobi), back stance (Dwit koobi), Cat stance (Beom seogi) in stead. So to make the assumption that the whole set uses short front stance (Ap seogi) and that the stance is impractical, and so the whole pattern set is impractical is in the writers own view flawed.

The pulling hand (“Ben son” in Korean, “Hiki te” in Japanese).

The pulling hand is the hand not obviously doing anything in the form and is retracted to the hip while the other hand is excecuting “blocks”, “punches” or “strikes”. We share this method of moving the hands with both Japanese and Okinawan styles of Karate and some styles of Chinese Quanfa. In the Taegeuk forms set however almost all hand techniques are excecuted making use of this method. This makes the forms look simplistic and basic, and most “official” applications does not help either. Most show applications with no practial explanation for the hand on the hip. Ask most instructors and they will gladly give you empty and shallow explanations like “more power”, “tradition” etc not going into details as to why would anyone place one hand on their hip and not protect their head instead.

In modern sport Taekwondo we seem to have lost the knowledge of the purpose behind “the pulling hand” (Ben son). The easiest way to find the “original” meaning is to look at the sources of Taekwondo and how they used the technique. Unfortunatly mainstream Karate has also evolved into a long range combat sport so they to often do not know why they put their hand on their hip in a practical point of view. Fortunatly we still have the writings of the Karate pioners and we also have the Chinese styles of Quan fa who also uses the pulling hand to give us hints as to why the pulling hand motion is so frequently used in our modern patterns. In his book “Karate-Do Kyohan the master text” by Gichin Funakoshi founder of Shotokan Karate he states: “Hiki te: grasp the opponents fist and attack while pulling him inward. His balance broken, the effectiveness of his attack is lost and that of the counterattack is enhanced”. He also makes frequent remarks later in the book on the explenations of Kata to always envision that you are grasping and pulling your attackers limb when using Hiki te.

This is of course a very short explenation but he touches on many of the primary reasons as to the pulling hand:

  • Awareness and intuitive control of your opponents wherabouts.
    Grabing the opponent gives you greater control of his motions, increases your sense as to what he is doing, and makes it easier for the adrenaline filled brain to localaise the opponent and so will increase your ability to strike the opponent.
  • Breaks the opponents balance.
    By grabbing your opponent and pulling and twisting his limb at the same time breaks his balance and puts him on the defencive. The human brain is conditioned to always keeping the bodies balance a first priority, so as long as the opponent is off balance he is also not likely to attack you.
  • Tactical advantage.
    Grabbing and pulling in the opponents arm will open him up for strikes that will be difficult to defend against.
  • Increases power of your attack (or counterattack if you used it defensivly)
    A car that chrases into a parked car 30 miles an hour will make a big bang. To cars going front to front on each other, both doing 30 miles an hour will make a bigger bang. The same principle is at work with the pulling hand coupled with a punch or strike. If you drag your opponent onto the punch/strike it will hurt him more than if you punched him while he was retreating og standing relativly still. This is probably the source of the “because it gives more power” explenation so popular today.

If you look at the Chinese styles you can learn that the pulling hand is actually a very nasty  technique in its own right. Grabbing and twisting sensitive parts of your opponents body can be very effective. Grabbing and twisting your opponents hair, ear, testicles, or digging in under the collarbone are all very painfull techniques. And if you (or should I say your opponent) has not had enough yet you can also seize his throat, grabbing, pulling and twisting. This is just a few applications for the pulling hand, but as you can see there is a lot of practical reasons for including this in the patterns, and the great number of its use in the Taegeuk set does not make the Taegeuk set “basic” or for children, on the controrary it makes a greater depth to the forms instead. There is an interesting article in the newest edition of Jissen magazine that can be downloaded on www.iainabernethy.com on the other uses for the pulling hand.

The Taegeuk forms consists primarely of “basic motions”.

This sentiment is true. If you compare the Taegeuk forms to older Karate Kata, Quan fa quan, Chang Hon Tul/Hyung the Taegeuk forms do seem simple and using a narrower and more basic technique base than its predecessors. But how do we grade basic and advanced tecniques today? These days most people look at techniques that are ellaborate and somewhat difficult to perform to be graded advanced not taking into account the practical application of the technique. Basic techniques are the ones we can perform with relativly little training. For example most will say that a simple front kick is a basic technique, while a tornado kick is an advanced technique. Most people are drawn to the “advanced” since we often think “advanced” means better. We grade the techniques purely on an aesthetic point of view. But should not self defence techniques be as simple as possible? From a self defence perspective the scale is turned upside down since in self defence the only focus is on applications and how well they can be applied. To them simplicity is good, because they need to keep things simple so the techniques can be performed in an adrenaline rushed state. Using the pulling hand as described earlier coupled with the strikes will also increase the effectiveness of the techniques and make the forms a lot more practical and effective for self defence. We are now far far away from what most people will say is a childrens art.

The Taegeuk forms use a great number of unrealistic “blocks” (Makki).

If you look at the motions labeled “blocks” purely as static defencive techniques just like they are most often seen in most official applications then yes, the blocks are unrealistic. In the “Kukkiwon Textbook” p. 197 (2006 edition) it says: “most Taekwondo makki techniques are designed to hurt the opponent in the course of defending oneself… Therefore, makki techniques must be trained hard so that they may function equally as offensive techniques”.

The English verb “To Block” conjures up a mental image of a defender lifting his hand to passivly hinder a strike to land. The Kukkiwon textbook`s definition gives the reader a whole new picture. The Makki techniques of Taekwondo is meant to actually hurt the attacker, and if trained hard and well they can work as well as offensive techniques to defeat an opponent? Unfortunatly most official applications do support the first scenario where the defender just hinders the attackers strike, and not the second one where the defender hinders the attack and at the same time defeats (or at least hurts) the opponent by hurting his limbs.

It is also important to bear in mind our idea of what an attack actually is. Different holds or grabs to secure and open an opponent up for a strike or barrage of strikes is equally an attack as the actual strike itself. Therefore some of the makki techniques of Taekwondo are designed to hurt the opponent and free yourself at the same time.

Some makki techniques are used for other “attacks”, such as pushes, repeated poking in the stomach/chest and the wild gesticulations often performed by an enraged person. The pushing, poking, gesturing (like shaking a fist or pointing a finger up in your face) is often seen just before the fight kicks off. Taekwondo share roots with both Okinawan Karate and Chinese Quan fa and they all focus on civillian self defence. Therefore it is logical that the techniques of Taekwondo deals with disposing of opponents/attackers before they become a real threat.

Then you have the makki techniques that actually are holds for opening up the opponents vital points. Some in forms of simple joint locks. One personal favorite is Keumgang momtong makki seen in most martial arts. This does not work well as a block but it works great as an opener for the vital points under the arm.

The simplest way to find effective applications to the forms is actually to forget the name of the technique and look at the whole motion. As previously stated the pulling hand or ben son is often just as important as what most people look at as the actual technique. Also it is important to think outside the “tournament fighting/duelling fightning” and start to think of self defence techniques instead.

Maybe the Taegeuk forms were designed for children and colored belt trainees, and most official writings from the Kukkiwon and the WTF will support this, but if you research the forms you will find so much more than just a childrens martial dance rutine.

Lee Kyu-Hyong (9th Dan) in his latest book entitled “What is Taekwondo Poomsae?” makes numerous claims that all of the Taekwondo forms (and therefore also the Taegeuk set) were indeed designed purely for fighting. Quotes like: “Poomsae training primarily aims to learn the face to face fighting in the actual field to protect oneself in an emergency”, and “Poomsae does not intend to look beautiful to others, or show off, but it is thoroughly for a  fight” shows that patterns training should indeed be more than just a shallow performance art.

I hope you found this article informative and that you now can look at the Taegeuk pattern set (or any other pattern) and see more than just the surface. Does it matter why we ended up with the Taegeuk forms? Does it matter to whom they were designed for? What matters is that we are now training them and we should try our best to make the most of what we do have.

Recomended reading:

  • All the books by Iain Abernethy
  • Simon John O`Neill`s book The Taegeuk Cipher
  • Stuart Anslow`s book Chang Hon Taekwondo Hae Sul
  • Mathew Sylvester`s book Practical Taekwondo
  • The Kukkiwon Textbook
  • Lee Kyu-Hyong`s book What is Taekwondo Poomsae

 

Ørjan Nilsen, 2nd Dan in Kukki/WTF Taekwondo from Norway, has practised Taekwondo since January 2000. His training has taken him to Korea many times, competing in World Taekwondo Hanmadang 2006 and 2007, and World Taekwondo Culture Expo 2007. He also studied Taekwondo for one year (2007-2008) at Chosun University in Gwangju, Korea. He is currently practising and teaching tradtional Taekwondo at Bergen Vest Taekwondo Dojang in Norway. He is also the author behind the Taekwondo Blog; “Traditional Taekwondo Ramblings” which can be found at www.jungdokwan-taekwondo.blogspot.com

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Emotional Content In Martial Arts And An Interesting Experiment

This clip above is now an iconic scene from the Bruce Lee movie, Enter The Dragon, where Bruce Lee is teaching a student.

Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.
Student looks surprised.
Bruce Lee:  “Kick me”.

The student kicks

Bruce Lee:  “What was that?  An exhibition?  We need (pointing to his temple) emotional content.  Try again”.

The student kicks again.

Bruce Lee:  “I said emotional content, not anger.  Now try again, with me”.

The student kicks again, but more sharply.

Bruce Lee (with a smile):  “That’s it”.

There is more to the scene, but this is the part that I want to cover in this post.

What emotion do we need to feel when training or even defending ourselves and/or loved ones for real?  As Bruce says above, not anger.  But what?  I’ll come back to that later.

Emotions do effect our whole body.  Those who are into spiritualism will often say that we vibrate at a higher frequency when we are in more positive emotional states (love, happy, excited) then when we are in more negative states (fear, anger, frustration).

For those that are more science based in their thinking, we have a small part of the brain known as the hypothalamus, which creates chemicals known as peptides.  Every emotional state that we experience has a separate peptide to go with it.  When we go into any given emotional state the hypothalamus will produce the corresponding peptides which circulate the body via the blood stream.  Each cell of our body has many tiny receptors on them which are designed to receive these peptides.  When these peptides enter a receptor, they actually send a signal into the cell.

I personally believe in both, but the bottom line is we are affected on an cellular level when we change our emotional state.  So which is the best emotional state to be in when we need to defend ourselves and/or our loved ones?

I decided to conduct an experiment with some of my adult students.  But first the disclaimers:

  • This experiment was only conducted with 4 students (not exactly large scale).
  • This has not been pressure tested (see, I said it first).

So I am not suggesting that the results are hard evidence, just an indicator.

I asked my students (2 men and 2 ladies) to select the kata (pattern/form) which they felt that they could perform most competently.  I told them that we were going to conduct an experiment, that some of what I was about to ask them to do might seem strange and contrary to my normal teachings, but to just go with the flow and give it a go.  And they would have to use their imaginations.

The experiment was in 2 parts.  Firstly I told them to close their eyes.  Then to imagine that somebody had hurt somebody that they loved or had wronged them in some way.  That they hated and loathed this person who was truly a nasty bit of work and who deserved no sympathy.  As they performed their kata, they were going to visualise destroying this person who completely deserved it and with no mercy at all.  There was a bit more embellishment, but you get the drift.

One of the ladies was struggling to contain a small smile.  Was she not taking the experiment seriously I wondered?

I told them to open their eyes, and “go”.

Their kata’s did not really look much different to any other time to be honest.  Towards the end, one of the men turned and bumped into the other one, and the 2 ladies had giggles.  I must admit I was a bit disappointed, as they didn’t seem to be taking it seriously.

But never mind, on with the second half.  I told them to close their eyes again.  This time, I told them to think of somebody that they loved.  It could be a boyfriend/girlfriend (non of them married), a family member, a child, maybe niece or nephew (none have their own children), or it could be a close friend that they cared about very much.  Somebody was going to hurt their loved one and they were the only one who stood between their loved one and the aggressor.  They were going to have to fight to protect their loved one from harm.  They were to focus their mind on how much they loved the person they were going to protect, how they would do anything, risk anything for their loved one.  Rather than thinking of anger and hate, they were to focus on love.

There were no smiles this time.  I had them open their eyes, and “go”.

One of the men was of like a battle tank on steroids, I’d never seen him move quite like it before.  The others did not look greatly different from before, but completed their katas with more focus, without bumping into each other and without any giggles.

I asked them afterwards, with which emotional state did they feel that their techniques were better?

Well Mr Battle-Tank-On-Steroids definitely felt better when in the love/protecting emotions than in the hate/anger emotions.  The others were a bit more hesitant and unsure at first, then one of the ladies offered that when doing the hate/anger emotion, she felt a strange tingling which didn’t feel right.  The other lady agreed that she felt the same.

Basically, they rejected these feelings because being full of hate and anger was an alien feeling for them.  We all get angry at times, but most well balanced people find it difficult to sustain a state where we have absolutely no compunction about hurting and destroying another human being.  Yes I know there are exceptions, but I’m talking about the majority of well adjusted civilised people.  I guess this explains the giggling and smiles as they could not relate to this state!

I then asked them about mental clarity.  Did it feel any different between the 2 emotional states.  They all agreed that focus and sense of purpose was much better during the love/protection emotional state.

I had to comment afterwards that isn’t it ironic that they performed better at a fighting art when in a state of “love” rather than “hate”!

OK, I know there are many limitations in this experiment and it hasn’t been pressure tested.  Arguably, none of them even really achieved the state of anger/hate, so it could be argued that the experiment was void!  It would be much easier to hate when hurt for real.

But how does this relate to defending yourself rather than others?

Well to my mind (and this could lead to an interesting debate) is that you should love yourself.  Not in an arrogant and conceited way, but by being at peace with who you are and what you stand for and live by.  Martial arts literature is full of talk about self development and being a better person.  Being able to defend yourself obviously gives you more confidence so you can stand up for what is right and for what you believe in.

But does standing up for what is right and what you believe in make you more able to actually defend yourself?

One of my former Sensei’s has admitted that he used to get into a number of fights when he was younger.  He says that when he felt he was in the right, he always won.  When he got into fights that he didn’t necessarily believe in, or perhaps others around him persuaded him to fight, he didn’t do so well.

Obviously somebody who is much bigger, stronger and better trained will nearly always beat somebody who is small, weak and untrained.  I’m not suggesting that if you just lead a good honourable life, you’ll be able to defeat anybody, you do the physical training too.  What I am suggesting however, is that with 2 people who are closely matched, the one who feels that he is fighting a just cause and who is in alignment with his/her own personal integrity will fight harder than somebody who is just out to bully!  The old masters always taught that we should live with integrity and humility.  If we live that way, then should we be forced to fight we shall do so with a clear conscience.  We can “love” (or at least feel good about) ourselves.

As I’ve said above, this little experiment is far from conclusive.  However, I’d like to invite you (especially instructors) to carry out similar experiments yourself and report the results in the comments below.  It would be nice to get a little data base of similar experiments here for others to share.

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Alone with myself – How Karate changed my life

First of all, my apologies for not having been active on this blog for a long time.  I hope to resume normal service early next year.

This posting is not actually by me, it is by somebody who wishes to remain anonymous.  Although the author is a Karateka, his story could equally apply to any martial art.  The author suffered a debilitating stroke at just 6 years of age and this post chronicles his struggle to overcome many challenges; physical, emotional, mental and even just getting a perspective on life.

It’s longer than usual posting, but it is a fascinating read from a truly inspiring individual.  It really does sum up what martial arts are all about.  Well over the author in his own words:


Before I start telling you my story, I would like to let you know that I want to remain anonymous. I have been through a lot of sad moments in my life and I don’t want anybody to know who I am. Just because I feel proud of what I have accomplished, and because now I look like I am a normal person, I would like to keep my identity secret. I would prefer to be known for my Karate or something else rather than my own personal story. The reason why I am writing this article now is that I now believe that sharing my story will probably help people who are suffering or have suffered in their lives for some reasons and give them the will to never give up.

I used to be a footballer. I have always like watching and playing football. Even if I am now grown up and do not really like all the business that is around this sport, I still support my favourite team with my brother. I started playing at the age of 6. As I was already very lazy at that time and as I hate to run, I chose to be a goalkeeper. Quite a perfect role for me, as I was the last defense wall. My senses and reaction skills were challenged every time the other team came into my penalty area, but I could also rest whenever there were not a lot of actions.

I used to be a goalkeeper, and I think I was pretty good at it.

But I guess you are wondering why I am talking about football and why I am not talking about Karate straightaway. Well, be patient and please take your time while reading my story.

I used to be a goalkeeper…before I had my stroke.

How it happened

A stroke is a brain attack. A stroke happens when the blood supply to a part of the brain is cut off and brain cells are damaged or die. It is a leading cause of adult disability. There are approximately 152,000 strokes in the UK every year. It doesn’t really tell you when it’s going to happen and in which way it is going to affect you. In reality, one in five strokes is fatal.

I had a haemorrhagic stroke, which happens when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds into the brain.

It happened when I was just 9 years old, in the morning of one of the last days of school in June. When I woke up this day, I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew that I had the worst headache one can ever imagine. Still I had my breakfast, prepared myself and brushed my teeth. Then I went to the living room and I noticed that something was wrong with my balance. I tried to shout some words that I thought were intelligible as I fell onto the floor. My mind was somewhere else, I felt out of time and I was in and out of consciousness, just able to notice that the firemen were taking care of me. When I woke up from a coma in this hospital bed, unable to move or speak, I was just able to moan and cry, unable to understand my situation. Then I was transferred to the rehabilitation centre.

Coping with stroke

There was a time from when I was at the rehabilitation centre when I could not realize what had happened to me. As the left part of my brain has been affected, it is the ‘logic’ area of the brain that enables you to sense the time as past and future (and therefore to be stressed about time), it was the right area of my brain that took control of my mind. It was actually not bad. In the right part of the brain, there is present time and the ability to feel. It was like a way for the brain to protect itself from making me aware of the pain of what had happened. As a consequence this disruption effected the way I was feeling time, it felt like I was in another dimension where time was flying fast and was also easily forgettable.

My stroke happened in the left part of my brain. For those who will read this article with poor knowledge of how the brain works, here are some explanations so that you will be able to follow my story without being lost. Due to how the blood circuit/ circulation is made, the left part of the brain controls the right side of the body and the right part of the brain controls the left side of the body. So as my stroke happened in the left area of my brain, it affected the right side of my body. After the stroke, I could not speak, I totally lost my balance and the all the muscles of my right side were very weak, both my right arm and leg. Problem: I was right-handed…

After a few months of rehabilitation, the left side of my brain had recovered a bit and I was able to realise that I was in a very bad situation. Still, I could not understand the words that the doctors used several times to tell me what had happened to me. After all, I was only a 9-year-old child at that time. Because of what happened, I was forced to become left-handed. I can remember that I really hated the fact that I had to change side because I really liked the way I used to write.

I really hated that weak situation.

But something in me saved me. Something that I had from birth from my parents: A really stubborn character.

In my mind I started to ask myself: “What are you doing here? This is not the right place for you. You are different from the other young people here. This is just temporary. You shall escape from here!”

Try to imagine… these words really had a positive effect on me. I was just 9 when I had this stroke. All I wanted to do was to come back to my former life, to be myself again, surrounded by my family and my good friends from my local school.

From the moment I realised that, I knew one thing: now that I had a goal, I would do anything to make it become a reality. After nine month of physiotherapy, speech therapy and other stuff of that kind, I finally could legally escape from this ‘prison of nightmare’ which I thought was not the place for me to stay…

Coming back to real life

There was a school at the rehabilitation centre so I not missed anything when I came back to school, and one of my goals was realised: I was having classes with the friends that I had to leave because of the brain operation I’d had and because of the rehabilitation time that followed.

I was finally back home full time but as my body had changed so much and as I still needed my parents to help me with most of the things I had to do, I really felt like I was dying. All I used to be, all the habits I used to have, were destroyed to the point that I even thought of killing myself. I was not myself anymore and it was going to be my life, forever.

Yes, at that time I was just ten, but a ten-year-old with the mind of someone who is old, with an experience of suffering that nobody around could understand.

In terms of sensation, I used to feel a bit lost in my thoughts, probably a consequence of the heavy medication I took. I felt out of time, and to be honest, I still have some troubles to manage my time.

The fact that I had a stroke also had an impact on my social life. Even if the speech therapist did a good job, when I came back to the real world, the one in which everybody would assume that you are normal and in which nobody will take time to really take care of you if you do not move or speak as fast as they are moving, I still did not feel at ease when speaking at that time. In this situation, most of the young people would make fun of me or would not care if I had difficulties to speak. This does not help to build confidence. I could notice a slight change in the way my friends were watching me, even if it did not change our bounds in the end.

Yes, I was so weak and nothing around me could help me because I still did not have a full understanding of what had happened to me. I did think that it was unfair though. I would be more likely to cry than the boys of my age, crying in despair. I had my family and old friends around me but nobody could understand me, even myself. All I wanted was to look like I was a normal boy, to be respected for what I was inside and not outside.

Starting karate

This was the context in which I started karate. At the age of 10, one year after my stroke. In the beginning, it was just a way for me to do an extra school activity. I did see a bit of the main Karate stances such as zenkutsu-dachi for example, in order to stretch my bad right leg, at the rehabilitation centre because one of the physiotherapists was black belt in Shotokan Karate. I do not know if this experience was what made my father think that I should start Karate in my home town. I finally joined a club in the end and that teacher was great and humane.

I started Karate in a very good environment. However, I had been seeing it as a funny activity for three/four years as I was a bit young when I started. That does not mean that I did not progress at all: I got to green belt at that time. I did not think of starting another ‘sport’. In a way, as I was growing up, my will to forget and to erase my past grew as well (it is quite funny now that I think of it that it is now that I am no longer thinking of it that the my work on myself is the most effective !).

At school I had some very bad moments that made me cry. When I was doing Karate I was always happy, even if I did not have the same understanding of it as I do now, and whenever I cried at my club, it was because of the effort that I had to do and because I was making some significant progress.

The turning point, when I started to understand what karate was

I had always been seen as a weak guy when I was at school. But this was before I started to understand what Karate truly is: it is an art of life. Once you get the mindset that is characteristic of Karate, your life will definitely be different because you will start to think that you do not have any limits anymore.  You will discover a true power that is hidden inside: the power of will. If you use it properly, you can get anything in life, as long as it remains something that on which you can have an effect on. Therefore, everything you could not do because of yourself, because you thought ‘No, I can’t do it’ will be possible if you think that you can do it.

At the time I began to understand Karate, I had an ‘enemy’ in my school. Or should I say a guy that hated me for some unknown reason. This guy tried his best to prevent my friends from playing with me, without success. He was the kind of guy who is overconfident and needs to show it to people he thought was weak. Bad news for him, I was very strong inside my head. He always provoked me, saying he was going to fight me and win. I was not the weak guy that I was after my stroke anymore. I did not reply to his provocation with violence because it was what he wanted me to do. Instead, I told myself that I would punch him only if he punched me. I spent the year waiting for him to finally dare to attack me, in vain. So after a year in which he tried and failed to ruin my social life, the moment came. We were visiting this beautiful museum in Torino with school. He was behind me in the visitors queue, continuously kicking me in the back. As we are in the museum, I waited until we came outside to let my rage out: too late he tried to attack me again, but this time he was in front of me. Bad luck for him, I launched a very bad mae geri that had the effect of making him fall to the ground slowly but surely. My best friend, who was there during this trip and who did not like what this guy tried to do during the year with me, witnessed the scene. But he chose to prevent me from finishing him in the ground. Whenever we talk now about this story, he says that he should have let me finish him but with time and experience, I think he made the best choice.  This guy started to respect me and be nice to me after this ‘fight’. I had what I wanted: peace. I was just 14. And I was not that weak guy anymore.

Then about one year from this even, when I was 15, I have been involved in another fight. The other guy was 17. Our school sport class used to be at the same time and we were using the men’s changing room at the same time. Once, I noticed that this guy, taller than me and my comrades, had a lot of fun: he took some of my school mates, kicked them in the feet to make them fall. I could feel that I was next on his list. His muscles were stronger than mine so I could not resist the attack and fell. As he was having his victory over me and showing off to his friends, I was pretty pissed. I then stood up. I took my time. I put myself in front of him, in Zenkutsu Dachi stance, and as I was loading my left arm, I knew my punch was going to go through him. I did the punch and then it hit him in the plexus and I had trouble breathing. He did try to move after but all he could do was insult me. In the end he was sorry and even shook my hand, and that was quite unexpected.

I did not know when I did this punch that it was going to be that powerful; this was my first introduction to the power of Karate. Even though I was far from knowing all about it at this time.

Getting better and better

From this point in time, there was no turning back: I was on a course of constant improvement of myself.

In the previous part, I said that I began to understand Karate. It actually took me a long time to understand it fully. What I mean is that Karate is not just a normal sport activity. Doing Karate is not just working on those three mysterious things: technique, Kata and fighting. Karate practice gives you more; I guess it is the same with other martial arts. It really creates a better version of you.

First, as you get more and more confident, it will change your body language. I used to be looking down, always walking in a weird way, bent back, and putting most of my balance one my left ― strongest ― side. This was obviously the body language of a weak person, and somehow, my Karate teacher made me aware of that. In every moment at my Karate club, I had to have my back straight, to keep my head high and to care about my balance: this is the posture of a strong person. Then I adopted this posture in my everyday life and I quickly saw the positive results of this change of behaviour: as it is quite an open posture, I have noticed that people were more likely to notice me, to look at me and to feel good in my presence. It actually helped me to get out of the vicious circle of ‘I can’t ‘and to go into the virtuous circle of confidence. I also met good and crazy friends at secondary school that were a very good source of inspiration. In a way, when I was alone fighting myself in the beginning, it took some craziness to think that I would succeed. Those friends were the ‘extra’ craziness that came into my life at the perfect time just when I needed it.

However, Karate did not only have a positive effect on my body but also on my mind. My teacher of Karate of that time always said to me ‘You can if you think you can’. Those magic words broke almost all the barriers that I had in my mind that prevented me to be as I wanted to be, to do what I wanted to do. I do not want you to think that the change is direct and that there were not any obstacles. Of course there were some. The key I used to overcome them was to act as if I was confident, even though I was not. I kept telling myself that I was able to do the things that I was not feeling confident enough to do. For instance, even if I recovered most of my speech ability, I still had trouble speaking during any oral examination at school. So for the A-level oral examinations I found the solution: I used a breathing technique that I learnt from my Karate teacher to unblock my voice and to feel confident. The result was that I passed with a good mark.

If you want to succeed, you should adopt a way of thinking like people that succeeded before you. I do not believe that those successful people were successful straightaway, without having doubts or thinking of giving up. Those kind of people are a myth and do not exist. This is just a way for some of them to maintain the gap between you and them. This is another point of my story that will be seen further in my article.

Thus, even when I was not practicing, Karate kept on having a good influence in my life and it became such a part of my life that I could not escape it.

The way to the Black Belt

At some point, Karate had become my life and my life had become Karate. Due to my stubborn character and as I hate to lose, I decided to ‘win’ my life in order to feel free and to remain true to myself.

In my former club, there was a hidden rule that everybody respected: everybody can learn from each other. The one who had a better understanding of what was being studied would help the one(s) who got lost and did not know what to do. As I got the blue belt, there were a lot of lower grades than mine and I started to enjoy giving a bit of advice, using my own words, to make the other understand what I had already understood about a particular thing of Karate. It could be anything, as long as knew it. I became a model which serves as a basis for lower grades.

Helping my teacher during the classes by doing this role of advice giver was a great experience. There was this 18-year-old guy that I started to help when he came in his first classes in my club. We became good friends. Three years after his first class, he got his black belt, one year after I got mine…

In the Karate club I was in I had two friends, a guy and a girl, that were of the same age as me. I thought we were at the same level more or less but one day I saw my friends get to brown belt and I failed the examination so I was stuck at the blue belt level. On that day I was pretty pissed because they would prepare for the black belt examination and not me. It was not jealousy, no, but rather me asking myself: ’Hey mate, what have you been doing? What went wrong? You know that your place should be with them but you couldn’t pass the exam? This is unfair; you should be brown belt as soon as possible.’

Well, due to my character and own story, I hate it when I think something is unfair to me. It was not the fault of my teacher at all, but mine. So I changed what had to change and soon got the spirit of a brown belt. I got it six months later.

Then I was preparing for the black with my two friends, as I planned. This year, I really was on fire. Unbreakable, both mentally and physically. In the end out of the 3 of us, I was the only one to get the black belt directly while the girl got it entirely at the next exam session and the guy gave up trying to get it. I felt so good. This belt was the proof that if you really work on something with all your strength, you can get it. I was happy and contrary to my comrades, I saw this belt as a beginning, not as the end of something. I was right, because then I came to realise that having the black belt (first Dan) only means that you master the basics of Karate. I am naturally curious, so I just wanted to improve more to see my limits and I did not stop doing karate.

Bad news, I need another operation

During my childhood, I had to go back to hospital several times to check that my brain was okay and developing well. At the age of 16 I have been told by the doctor that a part of the stroke I had was reforming itself, that what I had in my head was like a bomb that could explode at anytime and whose probability to explode would increase by 1% every year.

Well, that was a very hard choice but I chose to have a brain operation again, to finally get rid of my past. At least this time, I had time to think about it and to prepare myself for the worst…that did not happen.

We agreed with the doctor to wait until I get my A-levels to do the operation. At the age of 19, I had to live again the part of my past that I hated most. I hated the fact that the result of the operation was not predictable. I was going into the unknown.

 This new operation actually worsened the situation in which I was in. Despite all the Karate training, I had not recovered fully from my stroke. With this new operation, my leg and arm’s situation worsened, even though I could still move them and be able to have some kind of balance that enabled me to stand up. My speech worsened, but I was able to speak, it was just that my speech was very slow and I could lose my words easily as a result of the new operation. I could have a word in my mind but not be able to say it.

You might find it a little too harsh but I have always been thinking that the stroke I had was like an experience of death. I died when my stroke happened. The rehabilitation process that followed and Karate were my resurrection. Well, with this operation was like another death. And I needed to resurrect again.

As I already had the same kind of experience, it was pretty tough to live it again. However, I was in quite a different situation than before. This time, even if my body was not okay, I had the willpower to push me  going more and more forward, higher and higher, something that I owe to Karate practice. The mind is controlling the body, and not the contrary. I hated myself every time I forgot that sort of ‘contract’ with myself.

The operation took place about April or May and from June until the end of August; I was at the rehabilitation centre. I actually should have stayed there a bit longer but I really wanted to escape – again! – and to start a university degree so I did not care what the doctor said, and I finally got back to my previous life.

There is another part of the story that needs to be told before I go on because it had some repercussion on my life. I will try to make it short. You may think that it is not related but as I was recovering from the operation in the rehabilitation centre, I fell deeply in love with an amazing girl. It was so perfect, I was feeling so good, not noticing that there was anything wrong, maybe because of my lack of experience with girls (yes this is one of the bad things for stroke survivors, we all struggle with our love life). In the end, I felt like I had been stabbed in the back when she broke up with me. Not by the girl, but rather by the circumstances. Actually, I did not know at that time but I was emotionally weak as a consequence of the operation. In terms of feeling, after the new brain operation I had the same side effects as after a stroke. That means that all the pure feelings of love that I had for this lovely girl was strongly increased by the state of my brain at that time. The consequence was that when she broke up with me, I felt like dying. It was my third death and, I hope, the very last one.

Therefore, as I was going to start university, I felt completely destroyed inside. However, I was about to discover a very great power: the power of will.

Building myself again

I guess that you need to suffer a bit to be able to enjoy your life fully. After this, I swore to myself: ‘I will never be that weak again!’. And this was one of the bases of what happened next and what made me feel that ‘I was myself’ at 20.

In this month of September, I was alive but dead inside. The side effects of the new operation were the same as after my stroke. It drove me crazy, because nobody around me could understand. During the months that followed I was quite lonely and full of despair, despite the fact that I made good friends at university. Whenever something was going bad in my life, or not the way I wanted it to be, I could be very angry very easily. That was again due to the brain operation I had.

Thus, I had been through a very intense state of depression. I did not have the same problems as I had when I was young. This time they were different, a little bit more serious but in the end it was the same kind of depression. However, this time, I could not afford to have time for that !!

Starting a rebellion inside myself

At that time I may have lost some of my previous abilities a bit (my balance got worse for example), but there was something that I could not lose: I was first Dan at Karate. Due to my past, I already had the mind of a samurai, I was an experienced warrior who survived several wars. At that time, I was going to be involved into my last one so far, and it was a pretty big one: the war to improve myself.

I could not allow myself to be falling into depression again, so I used some tricks to help me. I believe in the power of words. Just a simple thing as to keep on telling myself some positive things such as ‘You are going to be okay’, ‘You’re going to be successful’, ‘You’re strong’, ‘I doesn’t matter what the other say or think about you’, ‘You’re awesome’ and some other phrases that I do not remember now helped me a lot to build the confidence in myself that I had lost. I was not telling myself lies in order to escape reality, it eventually became a reality in the end and I felt so good.

I also used Karate as a means to get rid of my anger. Remember, I could be angry about anything very easily. I found a very good way to get rid of it every time a ‘crisis of anger’ happened: I kept it inside me and then I went to my Karate training. Then, I put all of it into my punches and kicks. The results were more effective than what I first thought. As a result, every time I was coming back home after Karate, I felt good, very calm, at peace with myself. The rage I could bear inside of me turned into positive energy. It also made me improve my Karate a lot. This was my revenge against life, and for the very first time in my life I felt that I was happy with myself and in control of my life. I felt very lucky as well to have overcome such much bad things in my life. From this point on my life was mine. It would never be controlled by anyone or anything anymore. True freedom. I was winning against the elements, the demons, god, life itself, or whatever it may be called. And I truly intended to live my life as I intended it to be.

One year after the operation, as a consequence of my work on myself, I recovered most of the abilities I had before this second brain operation and I had even improved in comparison to the pre-operation version of me. From this point of time, I started aiming high, and I still am. I started what proved to be a long process: getting rid of all the remaining things that blocked me eventually, and to be honest, I did surprise myself sometimes when I did things that the previous version of myself would have thought to be impossible. I soon realised that in my life, as long as it was in my power, I could do anything that I wanted !

Winning against life

I started to have my own projects of life.

I wanted to start Karate competition in my form club. My teacher always said to me that I could do some disable competitions first, in order to introduce me to the world of competition, but I did not  agree with her because I thought ‘I don’t care about this kind of competition, I want to win normal competitions !’. I used to think that way. Then, I realised that I could be good for me, a good experience. So I did prepare for this annual disabled Karate competition that took place not far from the area in which I was living. I thought ‘I’m pretty good, I’m going to win everything easily”. Well it was not that easy because I was not the only one in this competition that had problems in my life and so all my opponents had fire in their eyes. I remember  a man who was practicing his Katas perfectly, very strong, without any loss of balance. I thought ‘He is so damn good, what is he doing here. Well, as I was watching him in his eyes  I could only see his upper body, I did not notice that this man had a plastic leg. He sure was a good source of inspiration. In the end, I lost my three fights due to a lack of experience. I sure was overconfident before this competition. I won my first Kata with my favorite Kata, Empi. After it, a teacher from another club came to talk to me because he was impressed by the jump I did. I did actually jump very high this time ! We had a very inspiring talk. He told me that he saw in my eyes a very high level of concentration and that he saw in me a great potential. I can tell you that it was totally unexpected. However, for the first time in my life, the words of this man made me realise that all the work I had done on myself so far was not in vain and I then felt very good. From this moment, my story and my past had gained recognition. I then lost my second kata to a man whose technique was of a very high level, very impressive. I did think that this man was not disabled at all. In reality, he was even stronger than I expected: he had mental disease.

After this competition, I realized that I was only relying on my past and I forgot the real purpose of Karate: Of endless self-improvement. I thought that from this moment that I was going to train as hard as possible. Because my only enemy is myself. I really am my own worst enemy.

I did participate to another competition earlier this year with sensei John Johnston, a ‘normal’ one. This time, I had time to prepare it. I knew that I had already improved a lot with Sensei. I believed  in my capabilities but I remained realistic. I knew that I lacked spirit in the previous competition so as well as the specific body and mind training we did in the club with the other guys, I did train my brain so that my body would accept the violence of the trainings. For instance, I used other mental tricks that I said to myself to unlock the remaining mental barriers that I had. Telling myself some words such as ‘Faster, Faster !’ when I was working on my fights or ‘Do it as a champion would do it’ really helped me to unlock the last few doors locked in my mind and to make  full use of my power of will. I was mentally prepared. At the competition, I also discovered that I had a new power: I could see from the eyes of the guys from the other team who was prepared to win and who was not. In the end, I had not been lucky to compete against those who I felt were unprepared. I did a much better version of Empi but I lost my first Kata to a guy who went to the finals and who turned out to be a European champion. My job was done, we were not in the same category but I was fascinated. ‘What makes you become a champion ?’ I was not feeling jealous but I felt very curious and I wanted to know how it was to be a champion. ‘How can I reach this level ?’ I was still lost in my thought when I also lost my fight. However, I started to think in a more practical way about the losses of that day. I actually won a lot by losing this time. I was asking myself ‘Why do you lose ? you felt very prepared for this one’. And then the answer was inside of me. Yes I was mentally prepared to win everything this time but something lacked to make it happen.  To be honest, I have got a bigger left side than my right side. To make you understand, I am like the Rafael Nadal of Karate in terms of body. I had always been thinking negatively about my right side, as if all the reason of the sad things that happened to me in my past was because of it. After this competition, I told my right side that it was not its fault if I lost on that day. I told it that I wanted to become an ally with it, that I was no longer considering it as my bad side because it bears the solution within itself. And then in my head, everything was clear: now that I had the mentality to do anything, I needed the physical to be able to reach my goals. So I started going to the gym and asked for a program of specific improvement for my weaker side that will, I believe, not be weak anymore in a few years !

This competition really helped me to know that I had no limits, I was just limiting myself. I really want to become a champion one day and my dream is to be a champion in the ‘normal’ tournaments. I will do everything in my power to reach this goal, not to be the winner, but rather as a way to improve myself and to be okay with myself. I won’t accept anymore to be prisoner of the dictatorship of my body. Because I still have fewer muscles in my right side, it is still weak. I cannot accept it anymore so I will do everything to improve it and to finally reach this goal. I just need a strong body now. With a strong mind and a strong body, I will be unstoppable.

I am going to stop here because I could also write pages about my other life projects. However, I would like to let you know that I have been improving them with the same unbreakable spirit.

Conclusion: you are not as limited as I might think you are

Those 3 last years have been the best in my life so far because I felt so alive trying to make my projects a reality. I would like this article to inspire other people. Because, yes, there is a life after stroke. Even more than that, I believe this article could inspire other people, whether disabled or not, or practicing another martial art, it does not really matter because life strikes us and will keep on trying to bring us down in an equal way. I would be glad if my story inspires others to fight themselves. Therefore, I would like my message to be universal, not only limited to stroke survivors but rather to be for everyone.

You can change yourself  and reach your goals. Dream big.  When I say that Karate changed my life, I really mean it but this is my thing, you are not required to start practicing Karate. If you are having problems in your life, start searching for solutions, for activities that would make yourself better. Then when you find it, give all you have got into it. Do not change yourself entirely but rather improve yourself.

Accept yourself the way you are, do not lie to yourself. Be true to yourself. If not, you will keep on making mistakes. You are the only one to make most of the choices in your life. Think positive as well, it is the key to everything. Then, if you make some mistakes, you will be able to react in an appropriate way and to move on quickly. So many people are stuck in their past life. As a consequence they cannot live in the present that is dark because of their perception and they will find no solution because they do not see any future. The solution is within you. You have to change your perception. It took me almost ten years to accept  the fact that I had a stroke, I wanted to forget everything that happened to me. But it was impossible because my stroke was the starting point of my life. From that moment of my life, I made some bad choices that had so much impact on me that I cannot undo them. However, as I am living in the present, I can change the future and make this thing of the past not be something that has effects on my present anymore. Now every time someone tells me to go easy on my body, even if it’s just to be nice with me, I reply : ‘I still haven’t found my limits so I won’t stop until I find them !’

To be honest, I have done so much and lived half my life with an after-stroke body that I am quite afraid of the kind of person I would have become if I did not have my stroke. If I managed to take the best out of that life-changing event, then anybody can change their life ! I still cannot believe what I have done because I am of a very lazy nature.

To conclude, I would say that the only way to free yourself is to fight yourself . You should see every problem of your life as a challenge to overcome. Try your best to change things that you can change (mentally and physically). Wage a war against yourself. And win.

PS:  I ‘m serious about keeping my identity secret. So, for some of you who know me in real life, please don’t mention my name in the comment section below or on Facebook.  Cheers!

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Joint Applied Karate Seminar (John Johnston & Iain Abernethy)

This was a great seminar hosted by 2 world class instructors, held on the 4th May 2013.

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Sensei John Johnston in action

Sensei John Johston, 7th Dan, has worked nightclub doors in one of UK’s roughest city’s.  He’s been a high level competitor (back when competitions were a bit more “Wild West”) and was Geoff Thompson’s first martial arts instructor, introducing Geoff to the concept of reality based martial arts.

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Iain Abernethy & I (previous course)

With him was Sensei Iain Abernethy, 6th Dan, who has taught all over the world, authored numerous books on the practical application of Karate kata bunkai and has produced a number of DVD’s.  The chance to train with both of them in one seminar was not to be missed.

There were Karateka there from numerous different styles and it was nice to see some Taekwondo guys too.  I was also a bit surprised to see Jamie Clubb there.  He’s not an easy guy to pigeon-hole, but if you had to you’d probably put him primarily in the Reality Based Martial Arts camp.  Yet here he was training with 2 traditional Karate guys, which is a testament their practical and effective approach and application of their art.

The first session was taken by John Johnston, which looked at the use of “blocking” techniques for destabilising, disruption and striking.  We started by looking at using basic blocks for covering up the head to absorb haymakers whilst moving in on an opponent and countering at close quarters.

We also looked at double blocks (simultaneous Lower Block with Inside Block, then the same on the other side), where the arms cross over each other in front of the body (as in the 2nd and 4th movements of Heian/Pinan Sandan).  Rather than blocking 2 attacks simultaneously (as used to be taught by our Japanese masters), this was used to block one high attack with the top hand, then use the second hand to come up to trap and secure the attacking hand, leaving the attacker vulnerable to a counter.

Another example was taken from Heian/Pinan Godan where the attacker grabbed the wrist with a cross hand grab and prepared to strike with their other hand.  The defender would move to the side, away from the attackers striking hand whist applying Uchi Uke (Inside Block) with the arm that had been grabbed.  This releases (or at least weakens) the attackers hold and sets them up for a counter.  At all times John emphasised that we should use whatever counter presented itself, rather than rigidly following the kata and thinking that we must follow up strictly with whatever the next kata move might be.

Numerous other examples followed with counters including releases from grabs, taking the attackers balance, striking and taking them to the floor; all taken from or set up by basic blocks.

The second session was taken by Iain Abernethy which looked at grappling and gripping drills from a Karate perspective.  Iain has a lot of Judo experience as well, but is very clear on the different requirements of Judo compared to Karate/self protection.

The first emphasis was on establishing a grappling hold which would prevent the opponent from being able to strike us (not an issue in Judo).  This involved placing one hand round the back of opponents head and pulling it in to you so as to prevent head-butts (and bringing in your own head in tight as well).  This arm was also “inside” the opponents arm so making their arm less effective to attack you.  Your opposite arm circles over the top of your opponents arm to secure it to your own body, again to neutralise it.  We had to circle over the top of their arm, as they could escape much easier if we tried to circle from underneath.

From here Iain introduced drills where the person at the disadvantage could reverse the position so they they had the advantage.  Then we added to the drill to block the previous move and keep the advantage and so on.  It is too complex to explain accurately without the use of many pictures or a videos (which I don’t have) and would take pages to explain.  So I’m going to cop out on that one.  You’d have to experience it for yourself to really understand, but I can say that it was a very clever and practical drill covering an area that most Karateka/TKD practitioners do not explore.

The third session was back to John for bunkai of the Shotokan kata, Wankan.  John explained that bunkai does not just mean “application” as it is often taken to mean, but it means “analysis”.  We should analyse not just the different movements of the kata, but the different attacks we might face, size/strength differences that we might encounter and the environment we might be in.

He made his point quite succinctly when he called up a young lad (probably early teens) and the smallest person in the room and told the lad “pick me up throw me”.  There was a pause and a silence, so John repeated he himself.  This time there was some laughter as people realised the point that John was making.  It is no good saying that any given application will work for everybody.  There was no way that the small lad would be able to pick up and throw a big man like John, so just teaching a given movement such as a throw and a throw only would be selling the bunkai short.

We looked at the first movement of Wankan kata which is normally seen as a high X block, or raising your arms between the attackers arms when he has a 2 handed hold to your neck, then lowering and separating your own arms to break his grip.  John gave us several potential uses for this movement including moving inside a haymaker and blocking with both arms and following up with a strike, or moving inside a haymaker and blocking with one hand whilst simultaneously striking with the hand nearest to the opponents head.

Other applications included stepping to the outside of a straight punch and using both arm to grab the attacking arm and apply an arm lock/take down.

At this point John told us that he wanted us to “do my job for me”.  By that he meant that we should experiment and work out applications for ourselves; applications which suit our own build, size, strength and experience.  In conversation with him later, we discussed how many people don’t realise that they are actually allowed to do this and wait for somebody to teach them every move.  The concept of finding out what suits you, (rather than one size fits all approach) is very central to John’s teaching.

Next comes 3 rapid steps forward with the arms held up (forearms together) in front of the face, followed by a reverse block and punch.  John demonstrated this as grabbing somebody by the lapels (or wherever convenient) and forcefully marching them backwards to take them off balance, then use the reverse block (see kata) to pull their leading arm to the side where it is neutralised, whilst turning their body so that they can’t use their reverse side either.  They are left we no hands that they can use, whilst you have one holding and one free to punch.  Again we were encouraged to experiment with this to find what worked for us best.

A few more applications followed, then back to Iain for the fourth and final session, covering throws and takedowns.  This built up on Iain’s earlier session on gripping.  Having gotton ourselves into a position of a good grip, we could then go for a throw or takedown.  Iain explained that although throws are a good tool for our arsenal of techniques, they should always be for back up and not what we rely on.  A strike or punch can incapacitate somebody much more quickly and effectively than a throw/takedown, less skill is required and there is less to go wrong.

Iain also explained how a number of throws had appeared in Gichin Funakoshi’s early books, yet they had been removed from the later editions and why the requirements of Karate/self protection throws would be different to those of Judo.  We then worked our way through Funakoshi’s original 10 throws, some of which I’d never seen before.  Rather than blocking a punch then throwing, we started from the gripping positions used in Iain’s earlier session.

Overall it was a great seminar bringing together people from a number of styles.  Both instructors were approachable, helpful and extremely knowledgable.  I would certainly recommend either of them in isolation, but together, you’ve got to go.

Further information on their up-coming course and contact details for booking are available on their websites.

Sensei Johnston’s courses are available at:  www.adaptivekarate.com/events
Sensei Abernethy’s courses are available at: www.iainabernethy.co.uk/seminar-dates

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Interview With Master Ray Gayle, 8th Dan Tae Kwon Do

Taekwondo Master Ray Gayle, 8th Dan is a former British and European champion, Chairman of the Professional Unification of Martial Arts (PUMA), inspiration to many and general all round nice guy  :)

As well as achieving great success in the sporting side of his art, he also has a very strong leaning towards the spiritual and self development side of martial arts as a whole.  This was one of the main reasons for my interest in interviewing him.  I have several friends within PUMA and it is clear from talking to them (and from their Facebook conversations) that PUMA has a very strong “family feel” to it.  Although there is an obvious hierarchy (as in any martial arts organisation), it is more relaxed and open than most others.  If you follow Master Gayle’s writings for a while, you’ll soon notice that he takes his training and teaching seriously, but does not take himself too seriously, which I always think is a good thing.  There is always a sense of humour present which you’ll see as you read on.

I was told by one of his instructors some years ago, that at a meeting of senior Taekwondo masters from different organisations within Britain, most of them had very posh expensive cars, big houses and holiday homes overseas.  Yet they were surprised that Master Gayle, despite leading a very large organisation, did not have all the wealthy trimmings that they had.  This (as was explained to me by his instructor) was because Master Gayle is more focused on what he puts IN to his organisation rather than what he can get OUT of it!  That in itself deserves respect in this day and age.

OK, so over the interview:-
CW:    Master Gayle, please tell us how you first got involved in martial arts.  Was Taekwondo your first style, or did you dabble with others before that?

Ray Gayle young

A very young Master Gayle

RG:    No, Taekwon-Do was not my first style. I first started with Karate in the mid 70’s. The style that I did was Higashi-Ryu, the head of that group at that time was Mr Peter Spanton.  I trained there for a short time and it was great. The School in Bristol that I attended had some really good Karate students and I enjoyed every session.  It wasn’t until a couple of years after that I saw a poster with two men jumping in the air kicking each other and at the top it had the name Taekwon-Do. I’d never heard of it before and decided to go along and see what it was about. I really enjoyed watching the class and it seemed to stir something inside of me that I didn’t feel with my Karate class. I don’t think it was a style thing, just the whole feel of the class.  It was also better located to where I was living, as a youngster with no form of transport that was a big plus.

CW:    What did you especially like about Taekwondo for it to captivate you for so many years (or should I say decades)?

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Young Master Gayle demonstrating dynamic TKD

RG:    It was the dynamic side of TKD, which instantly appealed to me.  Anyone that knows me will know that I love the dynamic side of TKD, the jumping spinning etc, although these days I’m not so dynamic, I have to keep my jumping and spinning for special occasions now.  I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of smaller guys doing it too. I don’t know if that was just coincidence, but being a little vertically challenged myself, I seemed to fit in fairly well.  I love movement of all kind, dancing, tumbling etc, so on a subconscious level it was certainly something that drew me in.  I was also taken by the sheer variety of the class, there seemed to be more elements to it than the Karate class that I attended, I’m not sure if that was just an illusion but that’s how I saw it. I feel that style has very little to do with what martial art you end up doing. In my opinion, the class location, the style of teaching and the initial warmth of the instructor and students are more important.

CW:    You have had a very successful tournament career in your younger days, can you tell us about that please.  Which victories stand out most for you and how did they affect your personal growth within Taekwondo?

RG:    I really enjoyed my tournament career; it was never what I was solely about though. I loved to do TKD not just for tournaments, but also for the whole package. I consider myself to be very competitive, I would always try and do my best with all the physical activities that I took part in, so tournaments

Ray Gayle Mark Ogborne2

Master Gayle (former British & European champion) with Master Ogborne (former World champion)

just fuelled my competitive personality.    I was actually a keen footballer and played at a very high level as a defender. Many times attacking players would look at me and I’m sure in their mind they must have thought, “I’m in for an easy afternoon.” How wrong they were, and what a shock they got.   Even though I was a very small player, I did surprise lots of players who thought I was a push over; they soon learned that the fight in the man was much bigger than the man in the fight.

This will sound strange but I have no stand out fights, I loved them all. I wasn’t really a scalp and name collector; I just enjoyed the buzz of competition and always tried to compete for the fun of it and with a smile. I didn’t mind losing as long as I knew that I had performed my best.  However, competitions did help with my personal growth. Growing up as a black boy in the 70’s could be tough at times.  TKD competition gave me a strong self-belief that has certainly helped me not just in competition but also in other areas of my life.

CW:    As a Karateka myself, I know that Karate competitions have changed quite a lot over the years with more health and safety regulations (early competitions were a little bit “Wild West”).  Do you feel that Taekwondo competitions have changed much over the years and if so, are the changes for the better or for the worse?  Do you also feel (generally speaking) that standards and attitudes of the competitors have changed?

RG:    Good old ‘health and safety’ has got a lot to answer for. It’s certainly had an impact on martial arts and a huge impact on competition.  I think in many cases to the detriment of the art.  In the earlier days of competition you had to be committed, because you knew if you weren’t, the chances of getting hurt was much higher.  When I started competing, safety equipment was not compulsory and there were no weight categories, that does seems bazaar now, but I feel it did make you into a better martial artist.  You knew that if a kick was travelling towards you, there was no option but to block it, there wasn’t a nice comfy foam pad on the end of it taking away the impact of it.  If you didn’t block, there was a very high probability you were going to get hurt.  Somehow that did seem to improve the quality of the techniques thrown; there were not so many throwaway kicks or punches.  Nowadays, on the plus side for TKD, the average student has much better flexibility, and the training methods for competition are a lot more scientific, I think this has also resulted in a lot less injuries.

CW:    Some people are critical of Taekwondo becoming an Olympic sport, saying that it over emphasises the sport side of the art and detracts from the original values of the martial art.  How do you feel about this?  I know that you personally put a lot of emphasis on personal development and taking part rather than just winning; do you feel that the sport side is good for personal development or does it just develop a big ego?

RG:    I have to say, I am one of those people who is very critical.  Olympic TKD only shows the fighting side of the art and there is so much more to TKD than fighting. It would be lovely to have a balance and have pattern competition too, or perhaps some special technique destruction. 

I think the jury is out on the ego part of the question. I believe a lot depends on how the student is developed and the role models they have around them within their own organisation and their class.  I strongly believe in the power and the association of others. If the people around you are behaving in a certain way, chances are very high you will start behaving that way too.  I always tell my students to try and treat winning and defeat in the same way.  If you do win, the most important thing to remember is to respect your competitor and to win with humility.  Unfortunately we don’t live in a perfect world and no matter what you say or do, there will be students whose ego will run away with them and they’ll begin to show the ugly side of competition. 

CW:    I believe that you were actually graded for your 6th Dan by General Choi Hong Hi (the founder of Taekwondo) himself.  That must have been a fantastic moment for you.  Please tell us about that and what this iconic man is like to actually meet in person?

RG:    Yes, I took my 6th degree under General Choi in September 2000.  It was a very humbling, frightening and exciting experience all at the same time.  I have to say that I had a really awful grading that day.  I graded at the end of a three-day seminar where he had just introduced the ‘sine wave’ style of patterns to all the P.U.M.A. members, me included.  I had also just left my previous organisation so there was a lot happening around that time and a lot of mixed emotions.  It was such a great experience to meet him and he was a real gentleman.  There were many stories doing the rounds about how he was difficult to get on with and how he had torn strips of individuals for no reason. I didn’t find this was the case at all, I found him very easy to get on with and his passion for Taekwon-Do and his enjoyment in teaching his beloved martial art was very evident for everyone in attendance to see.  He even invited a few of us out for dinner. 

Ray Gayle Choi

Master Ray Gayle with General Choi

We had a great time chatting to him about Taekwon-Do and some of his experiences he had encountered over his many years he had been spreading the word.  I guess that’s what you do when you dine with the founder of Taekwon-Do, you talk about Taekwon-Do.  As mentioned, my grading was a bit of a disaster; I think he took pity on me because he could see I was giving it my best shot but obviously struggling to get it right.  He knew that I was one of the senior members of the newly formed P.U.M.A. organisation, so during the questioning part of my grading, he gave me some guidance as to how I should lead the group.  He said that I should read and study Confucius and try and follow some of the teachings to enable me to be a better leader.  I can honestly say that the weekend seminar and taking my grading under the General changed my life. It also changed the way I approached my Taekwon-Do and how I would teach it from then on.  I was honoured that I got to chat with him privately on a one-on one basis, I was overwhelmed by his passion for Taekwon-Do, he must have talked for two hours about his thoughts on how Taekwon-Do should be taught and the difference that it could make in the lives of so many students. 

When I found out I was successful in passing my 6th degree, I did vow to myself that when the time came to grade for my 7th degree, I would do everything in my power to take it in front of him, just so I could show him the progress I had made since my 6th degree. Unfortunately, I never got that chance to grade in front of him again as he passed away in June 2002.   However, I did attend a Master’s seminar with him in January 2002 in Vienna.  I couldn’t wait for the seminar to start so I could show him how much I’d learnt in 18 months since I graded.  He did give me a few nods of approval and that made me feel really good.

CW:   You’ve recently been awarded your 8th Dan, a dizzy height that not many Westerners reach.  Congratulations Sir!  Not knowing much about the Taekwondo world, was that expected, how did it come about and what does it mean to you personally?

RG:    I was awarded my 8th degree on the weekend we held our second World Open competition. I had it sprung on me during a brief break for a medal ceremony, It was extremely unexpected.  I knew nothing about it whatsoever, if I had known it was going to happen I would certainly have objected and perhaps not even turned up that weekend.  It was something that I wasn’t looking for and would have been very happy to remain a 7th degree for many more years. When I started Taekwon-Do it was always said that to achieve the higher degree grades it wasn’t what you could do physically that counted, but it was what you did for the art of Taekwon-Do and other people that would determine if you were awarded those higher degrees.  I’ve never forgotten that, although the things that I’ve done were because they needed doing not with a higher degree grade in mind.  Perhaps the thing I’m most proud of which many state as one of the reasons I was considered for that promotion, is my continual involvement and development of Martial arts in West Africa, specifically Ghana.

CW:   Having been an instructor for many years, you’ll have seen an awful lot of people, many of whom would have started as little children, growing physically and mentally as they achieve success in championships and reaching black belt (and beyond).  How important is it to you personally to see this growth in other people and do you have any favourite stories/examples of people overcoming many obstacles to achieve success through their training?

RG:    Yes, I’ve seen real transformations in many children over the years. I have seen children with absolutely no confidence at all grow into confident adults with a real positive outlook and a strong self-esteem.  However, I don’t think martial arts is unique in the way it can build these qualities, I think that Taekwon-Do and martial arts in general is just one of many vehicles that can have such an effect.  I strongly believe its more about the teacher and the environment in which the teaching and learning is taking place, than about the vehicle. After all, the qualities that are taught in most traditional martial arts are the same qualities that would be taught to anyone practicing any organised religion.  Also a child who learns to master a musical instrument would certainly have their self-esteem and self-confidence boosted and would feel so much better about themselves.  It would give them the ability to do other things that they might not have attempted before.   I wouldn’t say that I have one special example over another, but needless to say, I think a large proportion my students who started at a young age and have achieved higher levels have benefited from their training.   In recent years I’ve had students contact me many times over to thank me for helping them build their self-confidence. They have said that the personal growth that they achieved through training, allowed them to pursue and follow their dreams.

CW:    What do you consider the most important benefits of training for martial artists of any style?

Ray GayleRG:    I think the most important benefit of training a martial art, depends on what the students is looking for in the first place.  There are so many reasons why people decide to start a martial art, I think that question is best served by asking the individual.  There are the obvious benefits that include, fitness, self-defence, confidence, mental and physical development etc, but also the not so obvious which might include, escapism, social interaction, an alternative to the usual physical pursuits that people might choose to keep fit. The list is as long as the different types and personalities of the students that begin a martial arts lifestyle.

CW:    Although I’ve never actually met you before, I’ve noted that you have a very philosophical and spiritual approach to life.  Have you always been like this, or is it a side of you that has developed as you’ve matured?  To what extent have your years of Taekwondo influenced you on your spiritual path?

RG:    I haven’t always been like this and yes, it’s certainly something that seems to have developed as I’ve matured in Taekwon-Do.  When I was a younger martial artist, my main focus was on being the best physical martial artist I could be. I was focused on kicking and jumping higher, doing more press-ups, being stronger and faster than I was the week before. Once you grow out of that and realise that there is a lot more to life, you start to look at the big picture, and in my opinion you start to find the real meaning of martial arts.  I’m not saying that you should just ignore all those other things, its important to still stay physically strong and active, but I feel its a natural process to take a much more philosophical approach to life and training as you mature. I still get a good buzz from doing the physical stuff that was one of the things that I enjoyed about training in the early days.  Leaving the dojang knowing that I’d done two more press-ups than the week before was, and still is, a great feeling.  I realise now though that training and teaching a martial art without some emphasis on the spiritual side and philosophy behind it, just makes it the same as any physical pursuit. If at some point in your training that side is not recognized, you may as well just go and do a zumba class.

CW:    Do you have many influences outside of Taekwondo that have supplemented this spiritual development and are there any books, DVD’s or any other source material that you would recommend to those interested in learning more?

RG:    I have the usual collection of books that perhaps most are familiar with. Book of Five Rings, The Samurai Code, I have some great books by HRH Dalai Lama. I also have a whole host of self-development books by many different motivational speakers. My favourite motivational speak is, Zig Ziglar. Probably my favourite book on the spiritual side of martial arts is; Kodo Ancient Ways, lessons in the spiritual life of the warrior/martial artist, by Kensho Furuya. This is a great book that I stumbled across a few years ago. It is written by an Aikido Master, however, it contains lessons and teachings that are relevant to all martial art disciplines. There are some fantastic philosophies and some great paragraphs that make you examine your training, your thinking and yourself. 

This is a particular favourite passage of mine from the book;

“If you think strength is the most important factor in martial arts, you will never be strong.” “A common person may become a master,” a true master never becomes a master.” Because learning and mastery is endless. 

Of course my biggest influence outside of martial arts for spiritual development, has been my mother. What a warrior she’s been. What a great leader and philosopher of life she has been to me. She taught me how to live and how to fight without even entering a dojang.  When I started my martial arts training I already had a head start because of the lessons I’d learnt at home from my mother, a true champion.

CW:    When you and life long friend, Master Ogborne (former World champion) set up the Professional Unification of Martial Arts, what were your main objectives and to what extent do you feel that you’ve achieved them?

Ray Gayle Mark Ogborne

Masters Ray Gayle & Mark Ogborne

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And lighter moments between old friends

RG:    To be completely honest, when we left our previous association, it wasn’t our intention to set up the Professional Unification of Martial Arts (P.U.M.A.) It certainly wasn’t by design that it happened as it did. Master Ogborne and I have been life long friends, so our only intention at that time was to leave and be independent with just the few Schools we were teaching at that time.  Soon after leaving we had many people contact us asking if they could join us, it was as simple as that. I’d like to tell you there was a lot more to it and how we sat down with a large pad and paper and planned it all out, but we certainly didn’t.

CW:    P.U.M.A. now covers Taekwondo, Tang Soo Do, Kickboxing & FAST Defence.  Do you have any plans to expand the range of arts covered and what are the requirements for other styles/arts joining P.U.M.A?

RG:    We’ve never had any plans to expand, we’re very happy with how P.U.M.A. is right now. As far as I’m concerned, if there is any expansion of P.U.M.A, I’d like it to be from within the organisation rather than from outside.  I feel that the students who have grown up with us know what we’re about and are familiar with the P.U.M.A. ethos. Whether it’s stated or not, I believe that every martial arts group or association has an underlying ethos, it runs through their day to day interaction with students and underpins everything that happens. The ethos within the group has to come from the senior degree grades and filter down to the junior students. That’s why I’m very wary of trying to expand from outside, if the ethos is not understood, then the result will be disharmony and the union of Schools and minds won’t work.

CW:    Having attended a FAST (Fear, Adrenalin, Stress Training) Defence course myself with P.U.M.A.’s very own Dik Chance, I can honestly say that I find this type of Reality Based training very useful.  Many traditional martial arts associations don’t like to include this kind of thing as I guess they don’t want to admit their training might conceivably be lacking in any areas at all, so I applaud your foresight in this area.  Has the inclusion of FAST Defence within P.U.M.A changed your outlook at all on the basic self defence value of traditional martial arts?

RG:    I can’t say it has changed my personal outlook, more reinforced what I thought for a long time. I first saw the FAST defence system while at a martial arts convention in America. I was with other senior members of P.U.M.A. as soon as we saw the system and how it worked, it was obvious to us that it could be of great benefit to us and to the members of our group. Personally for me, it was the children’s FAST defence system that really stirred my imagination.

I’ve always thought that self-defence in its basic form is very simple, also being small of stature, a lot of the release moves and locks and holds which different systems teach, never really excited me. The thought of me at 11 stone and 5’6″ trying to release, after being grabbed by a 16 stone 6’4″ male with some of those techniques were a little far fetched. I’m not saying they don’t work for some people, just that for me, it would present a huge challenge. The verbal techniques and simplified counters of F.A.S.T. defence made perfect sense, and when I first saw it, my impression was that it could be employed by anyone regardless of size or strength.  The FAST system has enabled P.U.M.A. members and others to experience the psychology of self-defence in a controlled environment, surely that can only be a good thing.

CW:    Obviously I’m not part of P.U.M.A. myself, but I have a number of friends within P.U.M.A.  One of the things I’ve noticed (especially from the Facebook banter) is that P.U.M.A. seems to have the feel of a big happy family with a lot of friendship and links between the different Schools (rather than rivalry).  How do you foster this atmosphere and feeling within your association?

RG:    In all martial arts associations there is a hierarchy. At the top you have the more senior grades who have generally been around for the longest time, right down to some of the young children just starting their own journey. I try to acknowledge all of our members and to be approachable at all times, I believe that this approach fosters a real family atmosphere rather than the fearful environment that I’ve seen in some groups. For an art that has courtesy as its’ first tenet, there are many organisations that don’t have the courtesy to give their members the time of day or even talk to them in a civil manner. Just the act of smiling can make a huge difference to someone’s day. It’s a cliché, but saying hello with a smile doesn’t cost anything, but it does mean so much to the person receiving it.

CW:     I note that P.U.M.A has got very involved in supporting a project in Ghana (which you mentioned earlier).  Can you tell us how you got involved with this, what you plan to achieve, what your future commitment will be and why it is important to you personally?

RG:    The Ghana project is very close to my heart and I’m happy to say it’s also close to the heart of a fair few P.U.M.A. students too. Ray Gayle Ghana3About six years ago, I was asked to accompany Master Trevor Nicholls to Ghana to assist with helping a group transfer from WTF to ITF Taekwon-Do, ever since then I’ve been involved with helping them develop their martial arts and their organisation. My first visit was a real eye opener and laid the seeds for what was to come. While there, I saw some very passionate people who needed a hand to develop their Taekwon-Do, they had asked for help from many people and each time it seems they were let down. I think the main reason they were let down by others is because there’s no money to be made in helping them. Sad, but I believe true.  A very likeable young man, Mohammed Mahadi 4th degree, leads the Ghana group. As a young lad he studied Karate and then moved to WTF Taekwon-Do. He eventually became disillusioned with the help he was getting from the WTF and decided to change to the ITF to see if they were willing to do more for the West Africa region. As soon as I went to Ghana I fell in love with the people and the country, so my passion for seeing them progress was born and has continued with many visits since.  At present we are helping them to build a dojang to enable them to spread the martial arts word to as many people as possible.

Fast forward a few years and in Ghana I have been involved with taking a team of youngsters there to demonstrate at local orphanages, I’ve met and had an audience with some of the most important tribal chiefs to ask them for their help and support to establish martial arts in West Africa. I’ve taken a team of fighters there to compete and promote TKD.  While there, I’ve visited companies to try and rally support as well as finance for the local students. I’ve met the Ghanaian chief of Police and managed to help with the promotion of teaching martial arts to all the Ghanaian Police recruits.

CW:    Amongst the fundraising events for the Ghana project you led a team of the P.U.M.A. faithful on a sponsored cycle ride from John O’Groats to Lands End.  This is no minor achievement, please tell us all about it?

RG:    The reason for the ride was to raise money for 3 charities in which we have a personal interest. The first was the P.U.M.A Ghana project that I’ve already mentioned. The second was for a group called ‘Pilgrim Bandits,’ that is run by an old Taekwon-Do friend from the past. Pilgrim Bandits look after and support servicemen and women who have been injured while on active service. The third was for a charity called Friends of Valence.  They are a School in Kent who support and help children and adults with additional needs. One of our instructors has a son who has attended and been helped by the School. So all the charities were very worthwhile and in some way or another we had a personal interest in them. I’m happy to say that the ride was my idea. What a great time we had, 12 days of pain made easier by the great company of some of my fellow PUMA martial artists.  Of course being the elder statesman of the ride, they made sure that I was in front leading the team at all times, well that’s not quite how it went. Needless to say when we got on our bikes degree grades didn’t matter and it was every man for himself. In truth, we all helped each other out during the tough times that we all experienced at some point during the twelve days. I think that we all learnt a great deal about each other and it brought us all closer together as people. There’s something about experiencing pain as a group that brings that group closer. With the portion of the Ghanaian proceeds, along with an offer of land from one of the chiefs, we have nearly completed the building of a training centre for the students of West Africa where they can come and train for free to expand their knowledge of their art.  It has been a tough few years but the fruits of our labour are now being seen and hopefully the Ghanaian students will be able to have some of the benefits that we enjoy and take for granted.

I’d like to publicly thank the following people for helping us all to realise the PUMA Lands End to John O Groats dream. The cyclists: Mr Dan Lammin 5th degree, Mr Ian Bedborough 5th degree, Mr Chris Walker, 4th degree, Mr Tony Goodwin 3rd degree. P.U.M.A. support vehicle: Mrs Tracey Bedborough 3rd degree, Mrs Tamzin Goodwin 3rd Degree.  I haven’t told them yet but I do plan to do it again.  Shh!

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PUMA charity cycle team

 

CW:    OK, I won’t tell anybody  :)    You have taken number of your senior instructors to Ghana to personally get involved in teaching a range of Ghanians from different backgrounds.  This has on occasion involved considerable personal discomfort for those involved.  On a personal level, what have you and your senior instructors gotten out this unusual experience?

RG:    As mentioned previously, the Ghana project is still ongoing and every year I give P.U.M.A. instructors the opportunity to travel with me to experience teaching and training in Ghana and also to meet the wonderful Ghanaian people. You’d really have to ask the people that have come with me what they feel they’ve gained from their experience, but I’m sure they would also say that it has changed their life.  The Ghanaian people are the friendliest people you could ever meet and although considerable poverty exists within the country, their hospitality is second to none. The smiling faces that you see throughout the country are testament to their incredible will and determination to live a contented life. I think what you get as someone who has grown up with certain luxuries, is a sense that we would certainly all be happier with less. When I get home after each visit some of the things I thought were important seem very trivial indeed.

Ray Gayle Ghana4

PUMA members at Ghana Dojang site

CW:    Since founding P.U.M.A. you’ve continued to evolve your Taekwondo with inclusion of things like the sine-wave movement for example.    What are your plans for the future direction and development of P.U.M.A. in terms of how you teach/apply Taekwondo and expand as an association?

RG:    I think for me, my main focus for the future is to continue producing good students who are technically competent but also have a social conscious too. I believe that our main focus shouldn’t just be about producing champions who can kick and punch, but also developing people who are passionate about upholding the Taekwon-Do oath and who are constantly trying to get closer to the tenets of our art. Regarding expansion, if students come through our system and want to be instructors, then I’m happy to help and assist them reach their goals.  I have no immediate plans to change our direction, as a group we’re very happy with our current position within the world of Taekwon-Do

CW:   Many people feel that Taekwondo is not necessarily good for the body as we get older due to the emphasis on high kicking.  Do you agree/disagree?  Do you believe that people should adapt their training as they get older, or should they just try to keep up?   Have you personally had to adapt your training very much as you’ve matured?

RG:    That’s a question that could take many pages to answer, I’ll try and take the short route though and make it quick.  There are so many answers to this question but first I must say that I do believe you can train in TKD as you get older but just like any physical discipline small adaptations are probably needed to keep your body safe as you age.

Ray Gayle2How safe it is will depend on the individual and how they approach their regime. I also think that as you get older its not enough to just change the physical aspect of your training, other aspects like diet and general lifestyle need to be adjusted too. If the student has a good level of flexibility then I see nothing wrong in trying to retain it. If flexibility is a challenge for them then they might have to approach flexibility training with some caution. I’m not sure that kicking high should be the goal, kicking correctly should be the first goal and if they can kick high that’s a bonus.  I’ve had to adapt my training for a more sensible scientific approach because of a hip operation I had approximately six years ago, so I’m very well aware of trying to keep my body safe and in good health.

CW:    You are married with 4 kids.  Do they all do Taekwondo?  How does Taekwondo affect your family life and how does your family life affect your Taekwondo?

RG:    Two of my four children currently train in TKD. I have a 26-year old son who trained from the age of 8 until he was 18.  When he went to university I think he lost the habit and decided to stop, he achieved his 2nd degree, you never know though he may return to it one day. My second son who is 21 still trains regularly and is now a 3rd degree. I’m very proud of him as he still helps in my class teaching the youngsters. He trains hard and is much liked throughout the organization. I also have two girls one 6 and the other is 3. My 6 year old has started training and loves every minute of it.  I’m hoping that my 3 year old will start when she reaches the age of 4.  My Partner Is a 5th degree and has been training in TKD for 24 years, so she is aware of my passion for Taekwon-Do and what it means to me. 

To answer your question, Taekwon-Do is a huge part of my family life, and vice versa.  I don’t think doing what I do it can be any other way.  There are some challenges but I know I have the full support of my family. Whenever possible my family come to the events within our organization and they also accompany me to our training camps etc. My partner has found it difficult to train consistently over the past 6 years because she has done most of the childcare during that period. She is currently trying to begin a regular training routine again; she’s really looking forward to getting back to it.

Taekwon-Do does have a big impact on my family but I see that as a huge positive.

CW:    Master Funakoshi who taught General Choi used to recommend that his students do something artistic to balance their martial training.  He wrote poetry.  I believe that you’re a bit of a musician.  How big a part of your life is music and do you find that it helps to balance you with your Taekwondo training?

RG:    I think the advice from Funakoshi was great advice. Life is all about balance and no matter how much we love doing something, getting away from it for a short time and doing something completely different can have Ray Gayle harmonicaa positive effect when we get back to our pursuit.  I sing and play harmonica in a local band and it’s certainly the yang to my regular TKD routine.  I love to get away and play. The people who I usually play with or in front of know what I do, they just know me as Ray who sings and plays harmonica in the band.  As well as doing my regular TKD practice, I always try and fit in some daily harmonica practice too. It keeps me balanced and has a real meditative effect on my life.

CW:   What do you think is likely to happen in the future of Taekwondo as a whole?  Obviously there are many different associations and versions of Taekwondo now, do you see more cooperation for the common good, more fragmentation, or simply people just doing their own thing?

RG:    The day that General Choi died was the day that TKD changed forever.  After the initial fragmentation when he passed away, I think the last few years has seen a steady tide of cooperation between groups. If there are enough people willing to work together, then I think that’s a good thing and there is certainly some hope for the future of our art.  I’d like to think that however it goes I’ll still remain as I am and continue to teach Taekwon-Do using the General’s teaching and philosophies to underpin my own teaching.  The great thing about teaching any martial art, is that you can bring your own personality into the training hall.  For me it doesn’t matter what the others do, I’m going to continue doing exactly as I’m doing now, loving and teaching the art in the way I know best.

CW:    Master Gayle, thank you for a very interesting and insightful interview.  I know that you’ve had a lot of personal challenges lately, so thank you for taking the time to answer all my questions.  I wish you, your family and all your students every success on your future journeys.  Take care.

 

Note:    It is planned to reproduce this interview in the on-line magazine, Totally Taekwondo.  This is a non-political Taekwondo magazine for TKD practitioners of all associations and I thoroughly recommend it to anybody interested in TKD.

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