I have recently been working on a book in martial arts and philosophy, and part of my interest arose from a consideration of the martial arts as practical philosophy.  I am increasingly coming to see the expression of the body through martial arts (and much, but not all, physical culture in general) as itself a philosophical act, and part of my intention is to try to explain this act.  Not in order to generate a theory of martial arts as philosophy, but instead to aid martial artists in expressing themselves and giving voice to their own inner life.  If we read the great texts of martial arts philosophy from the past, I think we can find hints as to how to navigate the difficult road toward attaining self-expression in the martial arts.

Bruce Lee, the most famous martial artist who ever lived, spoke in an interview once about the difficulty and importance of self-expression in martial arts.  It is among my favorite quotes in all of martial arts history:

“To me, ultimately, martial arts means honestly expressing yourself. Now, it is very difficult to do. It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that. I can make all kinds of phoney things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that, my friend, is very hard to do.”

I feel that this attitude is being lost, not only in martial arts, but in society in general.  Putting on a show, or winning a competition, has eclipsed honest self-expression in the eyes of most.  In the martial arts especially, we have a unique point of reference from which to understand Bruce Lee’s quote.  Although the art of honest self-expression is difficult, it is a natural pursuit for the martial artist, moreso than for many others.  When one begins to engage in the kinds of purposeful and combative movements cultivated in the martial arts, the issue of honest self-expression arises naturally.

As Bruce Lee said, it is not so straightforward to simply do it, to simply express oneself honestly.  We need to train in order to do this, to develop the mental and physical skills, just as we need to train in order to execute a proper side kick, for example.  If we neglect this training, then it will be impossible for us to honestly express ourselves through the martial arts, just as it will be impossible for a person who never trains side kicks to pull off a halfway decent kick.

Part of this training, if we aim to attain the ability to express ourselves honestly through martial arts, involves the ability to understand how the human body can express the self, and to train ourselves to develop the ability to perform the necessary movements in the spirit proper to them.  This is a matter of philosophical understanding, technical skill, and artistic ability.  If we neglect any of these, we will simply be unable to honestly express ourselves in the way Bruce Lee described, and will ultimately miss out on one of the greatest possible accomplishments for a martial artist.

I approach my own martial arts training as training in the art of honest self-expression, and I teach my children the martial arts in this way as well.  We do not have to walk this road toward the goal alone, however.  Great martial artists and philosophers of the past can help to guide us (although they can never completely show us the way, which we must find on our own).  In order for them to help, though, we have to listen to their words, when possible watch their actions, and reflect on the meanings behind these words and actions.

As part of my own training, I have been reading through and reflecting on a number of important works in martial arts and philosophy.  Here at This Year in Martial Arts, I intend to keep track of some of my thoughts as I go through these readings, in order to both document my own training, as well as to encourage others to engage in this kind of training themselves–a kind of training that, in my opinion, is ultimately the most significant kind of training for the martial artist.


Not long ago (October 22), I competed in my second TKD tournament, the 2011 TTF Champions Tournament, organized by a local Dayton-area school, Total Taekwondo and Fitness.  This time, I finally placed in forms, taking 2nd, and also won 1st place in Olympic Sparring.  This tournament was special to me for a couple of reasons.  First-my results were better this time around than they were back in the spring at the Ahn Classic (I didn’t place in forms and took 2nd place in Olympic Sparring).  Second-I felt like this was a “home game” because it was held basically in my backyard, and one of my sons (the 5 year old) was able to come watch this time.  Third-my performance this time is a special source of pride because I did it while mildly injured.  I wasn’t sure I would even be able to compete this time around, because I’d pulled my hamstring a couple of days before doing drills.  Both hamstrings were sore when moved and painful to the touch even up to the morning of the tournament!  That morning, I decided to feel it out–I’d go down to the arena, do some extra stretching and warm up, and see how the hammys felt after this.  If I was unable to get a decent height on my kicks, I’d either withdraw from the tournament, or go ahead and spar and simply focus on defense, understanding that I’d probably lose pretty badly.  Needless to say, things worked out–I was able to get some decent flexibility, and performed at about 85-90%.

There were a couple of things I learned about myself as a fighter this time around.

1) I’m a natural “late-round fighter,” because one of my biggest assets is conditioning.  There’s hardly anyone out there who’s going to be able to out-condition me in the ring.  My aerobic capacity, stamina, and general endurance is my biggest advantage, and in the fights I’ve had so far, I’ve tended to do better toward the end of the match, when conditioning becomes an issue.  I’ve never felt out of gas in the ring once so far.  I made a conscious decision to emphasize conditioning first and foremost when I started training for Taekwondo sparring competition.  I run 3-4 miles per day, and do full-body weight training three times per week, in addition to time for training technique and combination drills on the heavy bag as well as time in class. Basically I live at the gym.  If I’m not at home or the office, I’m generally there.  It pays off.

2) I still have a tendency to get stuck into one technique at a time.  I look for openings then throw single kicks, rather than following up with combinations.  This is something I have to continue to work on.  Fof the next few months I’m going to stick to drilling only combinations rather than single kicks–hopefully this will help it to feel more natural to launch combinations.  It’s not that I never throw combinations in competition, but I tend not to do it very often.

All in all, it was another great experience, and I’ll be competing again soon enough.  Next up on the schedule is the Ahn Classic in the spring, followed by the Battle of Columbus at the end of May, in which I’ll be competing in sparring, and my wife will be competing alongside me in synchronized forms.  Can’t wait!  And now back to training….

Recently I’ve been spending more time working on one aspect of martial arts that has nothing to do with technique or conditioning (although I’m working on those things too of course), and an aspect that I’m coming to see is of enormous importance.  In some situations perhaps even more important than the other two mentioned.  I’m talking about management of TENSION.  Yes, that most constricting and panicky of states, that won’t allow one to move freely.  Tension slows us down, decreases our flexibility, slows and impedes our thought and reaction time, and just generally makes us miserable fighters in the ring or anywhere else.  I’ve got a particular problem with this in connection with sparring.  I love sparring, and jump at the chance to do it, but I feel like I can almost never completely get loose when I spar.  My body immediately goes into constriction–my muscles move into tension mode, and I lose speed and power.  One recent thought is that this might have to do with the fact that I do a lot of weight lifting.  By definition, lifting weights creates tension in the muscles, because it is through extra tension that a muscle does its work to lift more than its normal load.

Strength training for the martial artist, of course, needs to be balanced, with aerobic conditioning and stretching.  Spending hours in the gym pumping iron without these other two types of training might be fine for bodybuilders or powerlifters, but a strong and muscular person without aerobic endurance, flexibility, and speed is going to be annihilated in sparring.

Still, strength training has always been a particular focus for me, as I was interested in this well before I started in martial arts, and it is something I still enjoy as a relaxing (in some sense) aspect of training.  I find that it is also of enormous help in training my focus.  There is basically no way one can get underneath of hundreds of pounds on a bench press, for example, and lack focus to ensure maintenance of proper form and balance.

However, even with all the positives to weight training, I feel that it naturally generates a great deal of tension, which is anathema to the martial artist.  So how can one reduce the tension?  This has been my recent focus.  I have tried a number of things, including meditation, deep breathing, and increased focus on stretching before taekwondo workout.  This seems to have helped to some extent–my tension is much lower than it was a month or two before I started this, for example.  In addition, I’ve found that jump rope workouts right before taekwondo workouts help with this more than running before taekwondo workouts.  Maybe this has something to do with the full-body activity involved in jumping rope (I use a weighted rope).

I’ve not yet found a super-effective remedy for tension in sparring, but I am making small steps in this area.  I’m sure it’s something one can never completely get rid of.  But I’ll be sure to let you know if I discover any other good methods of reducing tension.  And if there are good methods you know of, I’d be happy to hear from you!

I spend an enormous amount of time on conditioning in my martial arts training.  I would probably say that conditioning is at the very center of my training outlook in general.  There are a number of reasons for this.  1) one can only be an effective martial artist (in sparring at least) if one has a strong athletic base on which to build.  2) strength and aerobic conditioning can win you matches.  I’ve both seen and experienced it–you have a massive advantage when your opponent is taxed and you’ve still got lots left in the tank.  In some cases one’s conditioning can be so much greater than an opponent’s that one can go on the offensive for an entire match and still wear down their opponent while retaining energy.  3) The physical activity involved in conditioning supports the improvement of specific martial arts movement.  For example, strength and aerobic training (done a certain way) both promote flexibility and balance as well, which are essential for any martial artist.  4) conditioning helps one stay in shape in general and lends itself to a healthy lifestyle.

Basically, conditioning is awesome.  So my goal is to train hard, and train often.

For the martial artist, however, conditioning is not just a matter of getting stronger, getting faster, or burning calories.  The martial artist should have clear goals in his or her conditioning training, with an eye toward developing endurance, strength, and other aspects that will help us develop as martial artists.  That is, the martial artist should take a holistic approach to conditioning.  Lifting weights, for example, will help us to get stronger, but why not think of other aspects of our development that can be aided by lifting in certain ways?  If we approach lifting holistically, we can find ways to lift such that our endurance, balance, concentration, and reaction are also improved.  The same applies to aerobic conditioning, which brings me to the main consideration of this post:  for aerobic conditioning for martial arts, nothing beats trail running.

I’ve recently been hitting one of the nearby trails (it’s a 20 mile or so system but I generally do either a 3 mile or 5 mile section, depending on how I’m feeling), and I’ve found that the kind of skills one develops while trail running are very different from those developed when running a track or a paved path of some other kind, and are very much conducive to developing relevant martial arts skills.  The main advantage of trail running is that it requires a constant concentration and precision of movement, even while one is physically exhausted.  Running on a track or pavement (or even a relatively smooth dirt trail) does not offer this.  One can let go on such paths and go into autopilot, without concentrating on the path or on how one moves.  On a rugged trail, even when you’re winded you’ve got to pay attention to the trail and navigate over obstacles, otherwise you’re quickly going to find yourself planted on your face. I’ve let my concentration slip on trails a couple of times, but only for a moment or two, because I’ll soon trip over an exposed tree root or a rock and quickly snap back to attention.

The reason this is excellent for martial arts conditioning is that this is a skill one must use in sparring.  In sparring matches, you must be able to concentrate, react, and move precisely even while extremely exhausted, winded, or in the middle of intense exertion.  It’s all too easy to let your concentration and accuracy slip as you progress in a sparring match.  It’s something I’ve seen happen–the longer a match goes on sometimes, the sloppier the fighters’ technique gets and the weaker their control.  Trail running can help us avoid this kind of thing.  Regularly run a few miles on a rugged trail, and you’ll gain the ability to concentrate and move precisely even through maximal physical exertion.

So my advice to martial artists, especially those who compete in sparring–break out those running shoes and hit the trails!

I just returned last week from a three week whirlwind trip to China (five cities in four weeks!), and did some thinking there about the martial arts in general, in connection with some of the unique features of Chinese culture I observed in my time there.  One common theme in the four cities I stayed in (Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Shanghai) was the popularity of morning exercise.  The morning exercises I observed were much different than the kind of thing one normally sees in the U.S., however.  As a martial artist, I was particularly intrigued by the ubiquity of Taijiquan forms as exercise.  Yang style slow Taijiquan seemed to be the most popular form of this exercise, and people were doing it everywhere.  In parks, on college campuses, and anywhere else with enough space.  (mostly in loose, casual clothing, but sometimes in traditional garb, as shown in this picture I snapped in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing).

A peculiarity of this form of exercise, however, is that its appeal seemed limited mainly to older people.  I saw very few people younger than 40 or so doing morning Taiji exercises.  I wonder if this has to do with the declining of the popularity of the art, or instead with the association of Taijiquan with the aged.  In my last week in China, when I stayed on the campus of Shanghai Normal University, I noticed that the exercises of choice for younger people seemed to be walking, running, soccer, or (for a few, exclusively male) weightlifting.

One very interesting difference from what I observe in the U.S. was the popularity of stretching in Chinese exercise.  There were people stretching everywhere, and many of them (from the young to the old) had impressive flexibility.  I have to admit, I was totally shamed when I saw 60 year old men stretch further than I can, as a 32 year old martial artist…

This got me thinking about the situation back home in the U.S.  We often completely neglect stretching as part of an exercise regimen, especially in the case of males.  When I’m at the gym in the stretching room going through a routine, I hardly ever see other men in the room, and when I do, they’re rarely stretching, instead doing pushups or situps.  I do sometimes see women in there stretching.  It’s a weird cultural phenomenon, much like the strange gender-segregation in the gym based on the placement of the weights and the cardio machines.  Go into any gym in the U.S., and I guarantee you will find the following demographic breakdown:  the free weight area will be almost 100% male occupied.  If there are pully weight machines mixed in, you may find the occasional female presence.  This generalization, however, only holds for upper body weights.  On the leg pully weight machines, you will hardly ever see a male, and the squat rack is maybe 50-50 between male and female.  Move to the cardio section of the gym, and you’ll find a different breakdown:  about 75-80% of the people on the treadmills, steppers, bikes, etc. will be female, and the remaining 20-25% will be older men (generally 45 and older).  These regularities have held stable for every gym I’ve ever attended in the U.S. for my entire life, and I’ve attended gyms across the country for almost two decades.

Having attended gyms in China and India as well, I notice major cultural differences between the three societies.  My own demeanor concerning exercise, I think, is much closer to that of the Chinese than the Indians or the Americans, even though I am an American.  Let me explain:

American exercise culture for the most part seems aimed at an aesthetic goal, rather than an athletic or health goal.  Of course, there are segments of the society in which non-aesthetic aims take priority (professional sports, for example), but even in these places, aesthetic considerations are highly valued.  The vast majority of people one will find in a gym, however, will be following an exercise regimen with the goal of losing or keeping off fat, or shaping their body in some other way (gaining muscle, defining abs, etc), for aesthetic rather than health purposes.  While in some cases losing fat might be a boon for one’s overall health, it’s probably never relevant to one’s health whether or not one has six-pack abs.  While Americans in general exercise mainly for aesthetic purposes (the term ‘health’ has even become a euphemism for ‘beauty’ in our culture it seems!), there are clear gender differences concerning the physical aesthetic “ideal”, and this is revealed in the very different way men and women exercise.  As one could tell from the demographic breakdown in gyms I note above, American men exercise to look like He-Man, and our women do it to look like Barbie.

The kind of regimen most men pursue is likely to create a large, muscular upper body.  The heavy weight lifting and general lack of cardio lends itself to this.  As one will quickly learn, the more cardio one does, the harder it is to build muscle, as the energy consumed in food goes to power one’s exertions rather than build up torn muscle tissue.  One can, of course, still build muscle while following a rigorous cardio program (I’ve done it), but one’s muscle growth will necessarily be relatively limited.  It would be impossible to gain the musculature of a competitive bodybuilder, for example, while maintaining a decent cardio program.

American women, on the other hand, don’t want to be muscular, and instead focus on cardio and leg shaping, thus they’re always on the treadmill or stepper, and lift light weights on leg pully-weight machines.  This cultural tendency leads sometimes to bogus claims about the natural upper body weakness of women and comparative lower body strength.  This claim is simply false–women have the same proportionate strength men do, they just focus much more on lower body strength for cultural/aesthetic reasons.

Chinese exercise culture seems to me very different.  First and foremost, there doesn’t seem to be the same obsession with aesthetics at the core of exercise that one sees in the U.S.  Exercise is taken in China for seemingly different reasons.  First, health and enjoyment seems to be a goal.  I saw many more happy people during exercise in China than I see in the U.S.  Exercise there seems leisurely, whereas in the U.S. it’s strenuous.  I rarely see someone on the treadmill or under the weights with a smile on their face.  For us, it’s like a fight or torture, whereas for the Chinese it’s enjoyable.  Of course, this also means that it is rare to see hard exercise, something often seen in the U.S.

A second, possibly more important, aspect of Chinese exercise culture seems to be community.  I hardly saw anyone exercising alone.  From the large groups performing Taijiquan together to the young couple jogging a couple of laps on the track, exercise, as I saw it, was mainly a group activity, rather than the very solitary pursuit it is in the U.S.

Exercise as I see it in India is different still.  I have rarely seen a woman lifting weights at a gym (although maybe this is a function of the kind of gyms I frequent when I’m in India), even on leg machines.  The only time I ever see women at gyms there is on cardio equipment.  In addition, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone exercising outside, as is common in China.  No running or stretching and certainly not martial arts.  Exercise culture seems limited to the gyms, and these tend to be mainly weightlifting based, and overwhelmingly male.  I’ve seen some rise in the number of women attending gyms in the 10 years or so I’ve been going to India, but not much.

As far as purpose, I’d say the general Indian attitude to exercise is completely aesthetic.  The aesthetic goal is the main aim for most Americans, but for Indians who frequent the gym it seems to be the sole aim.  Chinese exercise culture definitely seems to be the least concerned of the three with physical aesthetics, which might strike one as surprising given the highly aesthetic quality of arts like Taijiquan.

I think there is another explanation for the popularity of Taiji in China, though, that has nothing to do with aesthetics.  As I mentioned above, communal activity seems to be an important consideration in Chinese exercise, and slow-movement Yang style Taijiquan is perfect for this.  I hardly ever saw people practicing Taiji forms alone, rather they were done in groups, with each member of the group synchronizing (or attempting to synchronize) with the other members in their motions.  The practitioners seemed to pay less attention to beautifying and putting frills on the motions then they did in harmonizing with the movements of others in the group.  It appeared to me that it wasn’t the aesthetics of the form that guided the practitioners, but creating harmony with each other.

My own attitude toward exercise is kind of like a fusion of the Chinese and American attitudes.  My main goal has to do with performance (in martial arts), but I train extremely hard for peak performance (my training sessions are rarely anything close to “leisurely”…).  Physical aesthetics aren’t a major concern of mine, but I’d be lying if I said they were no concern at all.  I, like most of the rest of my countrymen, prefer being thin to being fat in part because it just looks better, and having six pack abs definitely makes me feel great for more than just the fact that it means I have a powerful core for taekwondo (although that is essential in my book).  I would not, however, train for aesthetics alone.  If it wasn’t for my martial arts goals, I probably wouldn’t bother with exercise at all (beside the occasional jog just to stay healthy).

On a slightly different note, my training in China was excellent!  I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to find either a gym for lifting and running or enough space to do some basic technique, forms, combinations, etc.  It turns out, though, that every hotel I stayed in (and the university I stayed at on the final leg of the trip in Shanghai) had facilities with at least a treadmill and pully weight machines.  The 5 star hotel I stayed at in Nanjing, in fact, had the best hotel gym I’ve ever seen (better than a lot of single purpose gyms I’ve seen!), complete with free weights (barbell and dumbbell), pully machines, treadmills, steppers, tennis courts, and even rowing ergometers! (been a long time since I used one of those torture devices…)

The highlight of the trip for me as far as training goes, however, was in Suzhou, where the hotel gym had a ground-weighted heavy bag, perfect for practicing technique and combinations.  I pounded on this thing for about an hour, after hitting the weights.  Suzhou was my favorite city on the trip, and this gym, even though not the largest or the best, was also my favorite.  I had to get a shot with my good buddy Mr. Heavy Bag, after going toe to toe with him for countless rounds….


So my first taekwondo tournament experience is in the books.  Overall, it was a great learning experience, both in Poomsae and Olympic Sparring competition.  I placed 2nd in my division (18-32 yrs, intermediate belt) in Olympic Sparring, and did not place in forms, although according to some friends from my school who were watching the scoring, I came in a close fourth.  I was for the most part happy with my performance, as it was both my first time in competition, and I was also the oldest competitor in my events (more relevant perhaps in sparring), as I’m right at the tail end of the cutoff age for the division (32).  In my next tournament (right now I’m aiming for the TTF Champions Tournament in October, I’ll be competing in a higher age group against older competition (33-40 yrs).  I feel like I had pretty good conditioning even compared to the young guys in my division this time around, so I should definitely be able to retain this edge going into the next tournament.  Power, as usual, should be no problem.

The one area in which I clearly need improvement is, fortunately, the easiest in which to gain it.  My lack of tournament experience, situational drills, and instinctual memory was what lost me the match in the final round this time.  This, of course, can be frustrating.  I had an edge in both conditioning and power over my opponent in the first place match (our speed was about the same), but he was able to read my strategy and shift his defense in such a way that his counters were more effective at creating visible contact.  I was definitely the more aggressive fighter, but I fell into a predictable pattern and failed to mix things up in the way I’d planned earlier.  I think part of the reason for this is that combinations, fighting styles, etc. need to be drilled and constantly practiced until they become instinctual, second nature.  Thinking and strategizing goes out the window for the most part once one begins a match, and you have to rely mainly on your muscle memory.  I found that even though I’d trained various combinations, evasions, and styles, I tended to stick to my bread and butter moves (roundhouses, crescents, and a few reverse sides), and my evasion wasn’t as good as usual.  Part of the reason for my shift in focus, I think, was because of the nature of the opponents I faced.  In both matches, I was the aggressor and initiated contact, as part of my strategy of wearing down the opponent, forcing them to move, defend, and counter, then moving in to score once they became exhausted.  The plan was to out-condition my opponents.  This was very effective in the first match, not so much in the second.  While I felt I was able to out-condition my opponent in the second match as well, his defense was good enough to keep me from scoring inside, and he had all the opportunity to counter because I was the one initiating contact every single time.

In Poomsae competition, I performed Taegeuk Sam Jang, and was surprisingly successful (I think) at expressing what I intended to (as I discussed in my last post), but fell just short of placing.  There were definitely some excellent competitors in forms competition.  I feel that I have much more work to do to be competitive with the top performers in forms competition, while in Olympic Sparring I’m pretty much there (able to hold my own with the top competitors) and I need mainly to focus on some situational and tactical issues, as well as gaining more experience through sparring.  For my next tournament, I will focus on these, and I’m confident I could take first place in my division in Olympic Sparring (33-40 yrs. advanced belt).

All in all, though, 2nd place in Olympic Sparring in my first tournament isn’t bad, and 4th in forms (given the quality of the competition) is also a good sign!  I’m already excited about the next tournament!

Tomorrow, as I’ve said before on the blog, I will be competing in Poomsae and Olympic Sparring at the Ahn Classic in Mason, OH.  Recently I’ve been reflecting on the meaning and import of poomsae (forms) in Taekwondo and in the martial arts in general.  I, unlike some (perhaps most famously Bruce Lee), love forms practice, and try to make it a habit to devote at least a little time to working on forms every time I train.  Forms can express the artistic and (potentially) the philosophical aspects of the martial arts, when done in a certain manner.  I think of forms in much the same way I think of another revered art: calligraphy.  One learns words that one uses throughout one’s life, but in giving them form one expresess one’s inner life, one’s thoughts, emotions, and ultimately one’s dynamic journey through life.  This is what gives calligraphy such life.  No single painted character is similar to any other.  Each painted form has its own life, tells its own story, one greater and more complex than the word printed on the page alone, even though this too imparts its meaning to the significance of the artwork as a whole.

Poomsae and the forms of other martial arts, at their best, should be like calligraphy.  We perform routine movements we’ve learned and internalized, and through which we express the techniques of our martial art, but there is far more to forms than this.  Criticizing forms practice on the grounds Bruce Lee and others have criticized it misses the point, it misunderstands the essence and the significance of the practice, the art, of forms, what forms can be at their best.  Bruce Lee and others in the same spirit criticize forms practice from the standpoint of self-defense and fighting.  They argue that learning patterns will not translate into improved skill in fighting, and can actually only serve to get in the way of one’s improvement as a fighter.  In fighting (and more controlled fighting situations such as sparring), one’s movement must be more spontaneous and situationally relevant.  One reacts to the movements of one’s opponent, moves efficiently and uniquely so as to exploit his or her weaknesses,  following the natural patterns of action and response, always attempting to break one’s opponent’s rhythm and avoid falling into a rhythm of one’s own, that results in predictability.  Insofar as forms practice is concered with set patterns and rhythms in technique, opponents of forms practice argue that not only is it insufficient to prepare one for actual fighting situations, in its tendency to reinforce rhytmic thought it could lead one to get stuck in rhythms in one’s fighting.

From a fighting/sparring/self-defense perspective, I completely agree with this.  However, I do not see the significance of forms practice as consisting in its connection to actual fighting, any more than I see the significance of calligraphy as consisting in imparting information to the reader through the words painted on the page.  To look at a calligraphy painting and only see the words and their meanings is to wildly miss the point.  A calligrapher does not paint a character simply to express information through words, any more than a dancer leaps from one part of the stage to another as a form of transportation.  The artist of forms (in distinction from the general practitioner of forms) does not practice the forms simply as a method of fighting or as training for fighting.  The artist of forms tells a story with his or her movements, he or she creates a space and, like the dancer, expresses thoughts, emotions, and narrative through his or her body.  Forms give one a chance to create, to manifest one’s original mind in fluid movement.  It is one of the highest forms of art.  I strive in my forms practice (and tomorrow in competition) to tell my own story.  I aim to endow my movements with meaning, describing my own journey, including the life of the mind and martial arts, as well as illustrating how the two meet and can compliment one another.  Of course, because my movements are still clumsy and I haven’t come anywhere close to the pinnacle of skill, my attempt at performing the art of poomsae will likely be awkward and incomplete, and I probably will not be completely successful at expressing the thoughts and emotions I intend to or telling the story I intend to.  I see my performance tomorrow, however, as a first step in refining my skill in the art of poomsae, so that one day I might perfectly express myself.

One of the things I love about the martial arts is that there are two complimentary yet oppositional aspects to them, mirroring a similar divide in human life.  There is the cold, logical, practical aspect of combat, which is expressed in self-defense and sparring, and there is the personal, expressive, artistic aspect of martial arts, manifest in the practice of forms.  The struggle between these two aspects of human nature, which some (famously Nietzsche) have called the Apollonian and Dionysian, is a central part of the story of human existence (mine is one way of understanding this distinction).  Reason and passion, science and art, two sides of the fundamental yin and yang of human existence, without which we can never hope to thrive.  Uniting the two is especially important today, as our society seems to move away from the view that the Dionysian, the artistic, the sublime, has any use in our lives.  In the United States, funding is regularly slashed to arts organizations and departments in the arts and humanities in our universities, while funding for certain kinds scientific research and design as well as subsidies for corporations thrive and even increase.  We, as a culture, are beginning to decide that the arts are unimportant, and that material production and technological innovation are the keys to living thriving human lives.  But this is badly mistaken.  How can one live a life of significance given material goals alone?  We are not machines, and we will inevitably find that the life devoid of art and creative expression, like the life devoid of reflection and inner examination, is not a human life at all.  Just as the industrial revolution played a major role in the rise of the modern sense of alienation and angst at the center of existentialism, our current turn away from arts and toward “efficiency” and material production as primary will have broad reaching and terrible results.

In poomsae, the expression of one’s inner life and the creation of significance through art is fused with the logical practicality of combat movements, bringing about a whole, the symbol of the complete and thriving human life.  Thus, while I love sparring as an expression of technique and skill in combat sport, I also love poomsae as an expression of thoughts, emotions, and personal narrative, as art.  In addition to learning the forms of taekwondo, I study the forms of other schools of martial arts, as offering different means for expression that I can use to compliment the methods and patterns of taekwondo poomsae.  The smallest details are important in the performance, down to facial expression, the exact folds in one’s dobok (uniform), the way one’s belt hangs, the movement and placement of one’s toes and fingers, the trimming and shape of one’s hair.  I don’t know how I will fare tomorrow in poomsae competition (or in sparring).  But for me, it is not about victory or defeat, or whether the judges appreciate my attempt at creating a meaningful piece of performance art.  Rather, it is about the creation and demonstration of the art itself.  If I can come anywhere close to expressing what I intend to in my performance tomorrow, I will consider it a success, with the aim of one day being able to perfectly express my story and thoughts, such that all who witness my performance will know, and more importantly, understand.


This is magnificent.  I love Gordon Liu’s work.  He is a master at telling a story through martial arts movement, and the music compliments this form perfectly.  I aspire to this level of mastery.  Look at his expressions, shifts of rhythm, transitions between hard and soft, circular and angular!  Brilliant!  I feel energized every time I watch this.  I think people often forget or overlook the amazing artistry expressed in kung fu films, focusing instead on the camp.  My favorite comment on the youtube page for this video, by the way:  “this guy is obviously the fuckin man.”

A little bit spastic for my taste, but I think this guy performs the form really well.  He loosens up a bit toward the end and really nails it the last few moves (you can see the tension early on).  The best thing about this, though, is that I think he does an excellent job in expression and narrative.

I have two general comments on this video:

1) this is why you block.  In the TKD sparring I’ve seen, blocks are way underutilized, as are arms in general.   It sometimes seems like they’re not there!  Although one can’t really score points with the arms, they sure have a purpose, and protecting the head is one.  Lots of good things you can do with the arms–deception, power blows to set up combinations, and most importantly maybe, good blocks.

2) to headhunt or not to headhunt?  Cases like this aside (where the opponent is clearly not ready to defend against or avoid head blows), should one constantly take the high kicks without going to the body?  I realize that in this video it could be the case that blue sees that red is completely unprepared to defend his head and so sticks to the headhunting.  But he seems to do it right out of the box.  Not sure I’d go for that.  A better defender would have got the message that the head was the primary target, and then blue would never have been able to land a blow other than on a counter.  Any strategy a perceptive opponent can pick up on right away is not a very good one in my book.

ok, three comments.

3) red is clearly scared of getting hit.  He’s fighting timid, and I think that’s a big part of the reason he got knocked out.  He let blue get into his head (for whatever reason).  I don’t know if he was outclassed (as I don’t know what his skill normally is), but red is clearly the loser in the psychological battle.  He flinches every time blue moves.  I try to reflect on the following: if they can beat you, make them beat you with their physical skill–there’s no excuse for letting them beat you in the psychological game.

I will be competing this week (in Olympic Sparring as well as Poomsae) in the 2011 Ahn Classic, in Mason, OH.  In my final days of preparation for the tournament, I’ve been thinking about methods of handling tension, which can sometimes be a problem for me in general, and about some connections between tension during competition and Daoist philosophy.

I generally find that there is a kind of natural tensing of the muscles that takes place at the beginning of strenuous physical activity.  Maybe this is a kind of reflex, like flinching or tensing when a punch or kick is thrown at you or an object comes speeding toward you.  Of course, we can train our reflexes such that these reactions are undermined and we become able to stand unflinching in the face of blows headed our way.  But what about tension?  Can one train oneself so as to undermine the reaction of tension during competition (especially sparring)?

One way I handle this kind of tension is to wear myself out a bit before sparring–that is, do some hard running, jumproping, etc. to tax my system a little bit so that I’m slightly tired.  One thing slight fatigue does is loosen up the muscles, resulting in greater relaxation and thus greater flexibility and (strangely enough) power.  I tend to avoid heavy lifting as a way of exerting myself before sparring, because lifting tends to increase tension in the muscles, the exact opposite of what I want before sparring.  Hitting the iron is best done either well before TKD training or on alternate days.  I never lift after TKD training, as I’m usually pretty depleted after a good training session and wouldn’t get much benefit then.

A thought I’ve had recently is that the tension connected with sparring or competing in general might be undermined in a different way that has more to do with how one thinks then any particularly physical methods.  The Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi considers what he takes to be a flaw shared by many humans–the inability to appreciate what is outside of one’s narrow perspective.  Most competitors are focused on things such as victory or defeat, and it may just be that seeing things in terms of these concepts is just what causes tension.  If so, one way to undermine this tension would be to let go of seeing one’s performance in terms of victory or defeat.  Perhaps we should approach our competition in a different way–we face our opponent, look for openings and opportunities for counters, aim to move in such a way that they cannot connect with us, and see things in terms of what is before us, rather than in terms of scoring or being scored on, winning or losing.  We should put thoughts of victory or defeat out of our minds, instead thinking about opportunities and dangers, both within a match and also concerning the bigger picture.  We can look at our very participation in competition as opportunity to test ourselves and ultimately become better martial artists, and also be aware of the danger of being sucked into the narrow mindset of victory and defeat, of offense and defense, aggression and passivity.

I think Bruce Lee said it best, in Enter the Dragon:  “A good fight should be like a small play, but played seriously. A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”

Welcome to “This Year in Martial Arts”!  I am a practitioner of taekwondo with interest in the martial arts in general, and will be updating this site with my observations on training in taekwondo, as well as thinking about the history and philosophy behind TKD and other martial arts.  In addition to martial arts, I’m also very interested in fitness in general, and will have the occasional post dedicated to fitness, nutrition, and a couple of my other athletic interests, running and bodybuilding.

The name of this blog is inspired by a joke on the TV show “The Office”, where the character Dwight Schrute holds a one day seminar in the office surrounding “updates, advancements, etc.” in martial arts.  One way you can think of this blog is as offering my own updates, advancements, reflections on training, and general thinking about martial arts and related subjects.  Again, welcome–hope you’ll join me in thinking about the martial arts!

A blog on martial arts practice, philosophy, and history, as well as exercise and fitness, by Alexus McLeod, a taekwondo practitioner/competitor, fitness enthusiast, and philosophy professor