The 2011 Winter Retreat is now over and planning for the 2012 Winter Retreat has already begun. People always ask me how much work I put into getting ready for a retreat. 20 years ago if someone asked I would go on and on about everything that went into a retreat. The person I would tell would nod and usually make a comment like, “I never knew how much went into it,” or something similar. I could always tell that they really had no idea even after they said they did. I finally gave up trying to explain and simply say now, “A lot of work,” and leave it at that. It is nice to finally have people who understand what it is truly like to plan and execute a winter retreat (Master Shaffer and Mr. Walsh).
So when do I start getting ready for the next winter retreat? Even during the current winter retreat! I try to get a feel for what the black belts are interested in. I look at the current level of my students and their average age (in order to predict these things for the following year). I also secretly test them, without their knowing (until now!) to see if they would be interested in a particular topic that I am considering for the next year. This year I did that with great success. As most of you that follow this blog know, the four Hagsaeng Naebu have been picking up a lot of pennies and doing a lot of strikes through holes in pieces of wood. They seem to really enjoy these practices, so I decided to try them out at this year’s winter retreat to see if the feeling was shared more generally. It was, and therefore these types of exercises will be the main topic of next year’s retreat which I have defined as “Traditional Physical Conditioning.”
So, what specifically is “Traditional Physical Conditioning?” Essentially it refers to a set of exercises/drills preformed with training apparatuses (sometimes very unusual ones) specifically designed to improve a physical aspect of Taekwondo. Some of these apparatuses are still commonly used today (heavy bags, kicking targets, focus targets, etc.) but many are not. Take for example a student that just recently learned to do a side kick. Is it possible for a student to learn side kick correctly by simply kicking in the air? Yes, but the student will learn a lot more about how to correctly execute a side kick (and learn it lot faster) by kicking different types of targets: i.e. the heavy bag, a kicking shield or a focus target. Each of these devices will improve a specific aspect of the student’s side kick. The heavy bag will teach a student how to correctly place their center of gravity while executing the kick (If the student doesn’t do this properly, then the heavy bag won’t move when being kicked, instead the kicker will go flying backwards!). The kicking shield teaches a student how to kick through a target and not simply slap it. The focus target teaches a student precisely what its name implies, how to focus their kicks and hit what they are aiming for.
In most martial art schools today, very few training apparatuses are used other than heavy bags and kicking targets. Some schools have old relics that have been passed down from teacher to student but unfortunately only the physical item has been passed down and not how and why to use it. My own instructor, Grandmaster Kyongwon Ahn, use to make use of a lot of traditional training devices. One of his older schools had a kicking wall (basically a cement wall with a piece of carpet over it) and a wide variety of hand striking surfaces each designed to improve a specific aspect of a student’s front punch. When this school was shut down and moved to a more modern location, almost all of these striking surfaces had to be left behind (they were permanently attached to the school). One of them however was able to be removed. It was a 4×4 piece of wood that was about 5 feet tall and that had been thinned down to about 1″ thick at the top where it was covered with an old piece of carpet. At the school, Grandmaster Ahn had his students practice front punches on this device in addition to other types of equipment. Why? This tool offers a type of feedback that none of the other targets can. When punched with force, the wood bends and then quickly snaps back into place. If a student hasn’t correctly locked his/her muscles on impact, the device “reminds” the student of their non-perfect punch by sending shock waves back though the student’s arm and body.
There is a line out of the Tao Te Ching that I always think about whenever Grandmaster Ahn gives me anything (or teaches me anything for that matter): Clay is formed into a cup, what is not there makes the cup useful. I always ask myself when given something by Grandmaster Ahn, why is he really giving this to me? What is “not there” that makes this item useful? I remember helping him clean out the above mentioned school when it was being closed. He gave me a lot of things I will treasure for the rest of my life and one of those was the 4×4 wooden post. He said something along the lines of, “This is an old punching target that I will never use again, why don’t you take it.” So I did and I took it home and placed it in a pile with a bunch of other martial art items. And there is sat, for years and years. You see, sometimes there isn’t anything that, “isn’t there to make it useful.” I thought it was simply an, “old punching target.”
In the mid-nineties one of my other instructors starting teaching me using a lot a very bizarre (well at the time they were bizarre) training apparatus. One involved a big stick and a cinder-block. I was told to swing the stick as hard as I could into the block. The first time I did this, the instant I hit the block, a shock wave traveled up the stick, into my arms and into my body. The pain was beyond words. I threw the stick down and jumped back like I had been shocked by electricity. My instructor then explained to me the correct way to “lock” my muscles when hitting a target with a stick. After that the pain got less and less and my ability to execute the technique correctly got better and better. When striking the block repeatedly, I couldn’t help but remember that I had had a similar feeling before, though I couldn’t remember from where. Finally it hit me, I had felt the same shocking pain when hitting that 4×4 piece of wood in Grandmaster Ahn’s school. So that is what was “not there” in his gift, I thought. I returned home and set up the 4×4 target and started punching. I was amazed that with this target, I had had a teacher in my house that could have been spending hours with me on an aspect of how to punch correctly. What a waste of years. I became fascinated, almost obsessed, with these old style training apparatuses. I started asking all my instructors what they had used, how their instructors had trained them how to make such devices and how to use them. The best part was that when I asked, several of them had me actually make the apparatus (with their guidance) and practice with it, instead of simply just telling me the information I requested.
So, at next year’s retreat the black belts will arrive to a pile of unusual training apparatuses. Some will be very old, given to me or made by me at some point during my training. During the retreat, the participants will be encouraged to try and use these devices and I guarantee you they will ask themselves, “Why am I doing this and why am I here again?” But by the end of the retreat, I know that they will know exactly why they were using the devices and will be very excited that they came.
In the meantime, my four Hagsaeng Naebu will spend the year learning how to make and correctly use all of the apparatuses that I will be bringing to the retreat. I’ll make sure they post pictures and blog about their experiences with these devices. It will be certainly be a year they will never forget.