Sharing a common ambition to penetrate the often self-imposed limits of physical endurance and concentration, eight martial pilgrims from my school, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, converged on the tiny village of Puylaurens located in the South of France. There, for one full week in August,surrounded by the beauty and tranquility of Chateau Borio Blanco built in 1630, we explored the principles, practices and philosophy of traditional taekwondo in fine detail, unencumbered by outside distractions and workaday demands.
In pursuing my profession I have always felt obligated to teach the most authentic, effective Korean martial arts skills, both physical and academic, possible. And there are many; so many that all unimpeachably require a lifetime to master. So, in class after class, we fortify our basics, perfect our poomsae, hyung or tuls, attempt to unravel the secrets of defensive tactics, and then skim the surface of the more esoteric doctrines associated with our art. There, in the solitude of the French countryside among the sycamores and fields of sunflowers, we were afforded the opportunity to view our martial talent through the lens of undivided time.
Each day began early with a breakfast consisting of freshly-baked croissants, strong coffee with milk warm from the cow, grain cereals and yogurt complimented by a variety of cheeses, butter and jams. Following the first meal of the day, my students, all from Warwick, New York, made their way up a steep flight of steps to the loft of a rustic barn, constructed during World War II. Renovated by owners Yaron and Kiki Rosner for the purpose of formalized retreats, the environment lent itself perfectly to mindful practice.
With clocklike precision utilizing seated meditation as a prelude, each session progressed from a series of warm up and flexibility exercises to internal energy or ki development drills, bone-strengthening, basic skills, and a full roster of ho sin sool (self-defense), il su sik (one-step sparring) and sam su sik (three-steep sparring) practice. After being infused with an equally satisfying lunch, the warm afternoons, likewise, were filled with baljitki, (footwork), kyorugi (free sparring) and poomsae (forms) practice - the central pillar of any classical martial art. At day’s end, each participant was flush with awareness and reinvigorated with wonder at the majesty of traditional taekwondo.
The evenings offered time for reflection and camaraderie. Late dinners, featuring succulent local dishes such cassoult, were fortified by rich red wines, crispy breads, leafy salads and an assortment of fine cheeses, leaving us ready for a good night’s rest in royal accommodations.
Several segments of the carefully crafted curriculum provided highlights that today remain crystallized in the minds and bodies of the participants. The Chosun Taekwondo Academy syllabus requires our students to perform the Kicho, Taegeuk, Palgwe, Kukkiwon Yudanja and Moo Duk Kwan Taekwondo poomsae as taught by Grandmaster Richard Chun, for promotion tests. Aside from these necessary formal exercises, we also offer training in the Kibon set and several ITF tuls. Yet the one hole I have repeatedly identified over the past sixteen years of our school’s existence is the exclusion of the five Pyung-An hyung. Originally created in 1902 by Anko Itosu as a vehicle for teaching Okinawan te - later karate-do - to local school children, these primordial formal exercises then known as the Pinan set and subsequently renamed Heian in Japan by Funakoshi, have intentionally or unintentionally acted as a blueprint for the creation of both the Korea Taekwondo Association Palgwe poomsae and to some extent General Choi’s Ch’ang Hon tuls. Given the environment of total immersion, undeterred by demands of work, chattering mobile devices and laptops, I decided to teach my students the first three of these seminal hyung. All participants embraced their lessons well and much to my delight, by week’s end, were executing all three with proficiency and true martial spirit although Pyung-An Sam Dan with its crescent kick - elbow block - back fist - return sequence seemed a favorite.
Moreover, physical practice in taekwondo is unquestionably essential since, first and foremost, it is an action philosophy; there is no replacement for it. Nevertheless, just as a grand mosaic with pieces missing appears incomplete, so is our art minus its historical and philosophical dimension. Consequently, on day three, I chose to offer a three-hour discourse on these vital elements of the art. Relying on a PowerPoint presentation for visual depictions of the subject matter, I provided important information on the history of Korea beginning with Ko-Chosun and the Three Kingdoms period through the Japanese Occupation and the Korean Conflict. We then moved on to the legend of Bodhidharma and the development of Okinawan te/karate-do, the creation of martial “ways”, identification of the original kwans or institutes of the early 1950s including an introduction of their founders, and concluded the session by describing the distinction between a modern combat sport and a traditional martial art.
Korean technical nomenclature too was not immune to instruction. I have always held to the belief that, if a student of taekwondo wishes to “own” a particular technique, they should have the capacity to call it by its Korean name. Subsequently, we would, each day, run through a litany of terminology for basic skills; low block-arae makki, high block-olgool makki, front kick-ap chagi, horse stance-ju choom seogi, etc. Then I came upon a term that seemed to surprise many of my students: mu do. This term can be construed as “martial way”, “martial spirit”, or “Korean martial art”. We used it during the seminar in such a way as to conjure strong martial spirit and intent during the long hours of practice. When someone would notice a fellow student’s energy flagging, they would shout: “Where is your mu do!?”, and the rush of renewed ki this would elicit was almost palpable.
Given the complex potpourri of technical skills rendered, each student took away something different from this spiritually-enriching adventure; one spoke of a new-found attention to distancing while another felt the history section and the personalities involved was most illuminating. Yet, in the end, after five days of close, intense training in the physical and academic components of traditional taekwondo, students Olga Pico, Marcele Mitschelich, Ignacio Cytrynowicz, Arun Salgunan, Kiki Rosner, Christina Cytrynowicz and Deborah Szajngarten, realized a unity of spirit amplified by a sense of unparalleled accomplishment not often found the hectic pursuit of daily life.
With barely veiled sadness at the thought of leaving this paradisiacal setting of disciplined practice, we spent the final hour of our retreat articulating the overall gains each of us had accumulated during our stay. As a symbol of my immense gratitude, I presented each student with a certificate of achievement.
On Saturday morning, our time of departure had finally arrived. Stowing our luggage in the trucks of a stout Peugeot and a racy Alfa Romeo, we pecked cheeks and shook hands bidding each other farewell, some of us bound for Barcelona, others heading to Casablanca and Toulouse. Either way, our bond was to be temporarily broken until we would meet again in the safety of the dojang with shared memories, never to be forgotten.
Each year, members of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy set out on a martial pilgrimage, each separate and different, intended to bolster martial skill, cultural exchange and an expanded worldview. In July of 2014, we will venture forth on our seventh journey to Korea, the homeland of taekwondo, where we plan to visit and train on Jeju Island, at Golgusa Temple in Kyongju, the Kukkiwon in Seoul, the World Taekwondo Instructor Academy under the direction of Grandmaster Kyu Hyun Lee, and the Kumgang Taekwondo Center with Master Byeong Cheol An. Of course, we allocate ample time for sightseeing and shopping. Our martial expeditions are open to all and it is common for us to welcome participants from other schools and styles originating from different parts of the world. For information regarding these comprehensive journeys, visit our web site at www.chosuntkd.com, or call (845) 986-2288.
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a senior student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of four best-selling books entitled: Taekwondo…Ancient Wisdom for the Modern Warrior, Traditional Taekwondo - Core Techniques, History and Philosophy, Taekwondo–A Path to Excellence, and Taekwondo Black Belt Poomsae: Original Koryo and Koryo, a recently published work, co-authored with Grandmaster Chun. Master Cook can be reached for lectures, workshops or questions at www.chosuntkd.com or email@example.com.