by Master Doug Cook
A few years ago I looked up during class and was surprised to see an instructor from a competing school standing in the back of the dojang. Intrigued by his visit, I invited him into my office at the close of the training session only to discover that he recently had a falling out with his master and came to inquire about becoming an instructor at our school. While he was candid about the details of the split, I was reluctant to hire him based on the fact that his reputation in our community was less than sterling, especially when it came to handling children. It seems he was verbally abusive and outright disrespectful at times. Following some personal meditation on the subject, I ultimately decided not to take him on…a choice I would later come to value. As time went by, I heard that he was teaching at a dojang in a nearby town.
Recently, we bumped into each other at a local convenience store. I inquired as to how he was doing and if he was currently teaching. “I left tae kwon do”, he said with an air of triumph. “I’m practicing a real martial art now.” He then went on to describe how tae kwon do has evolved into nothing more than a woman’s social club at most dojangs and how the curricula at these dojangs were unfairly weighted towards that gender. Instead he sought out a school where people “break bones and hurt each other”. “The real thing” he growled.
As you can imagine, the feeling that I had made the proper decision in not taking him on in the first place was amplified all the more. Being a staunch supporter of traditional tae kwon do – a martial art that is highly democratic in nature - and, as Master Philip Ameris states in a recent quote “has something for everybody”, I was astounded by his statement but not surprised from whence it came.
Clearly, many women today find the practice of taekwondo to be a highly desirable discipline and in truth more than half the student population at my school, the Chosun Taekwondo Academy, is female. But do these facts detract from the defensive value and overall effectiveness of tae kwon do as a traditional martial art?
One must recall that tae kwon do was originally created as a method of self-defense for soldiers on the field of battle. Moreover, it has been proven effective during combat in the jungles of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict - the bloody, civil war between brothers of the same. Is it any wonder then why women – who from time immemorial have been convinced of their physical inferiority when compared to their male counterparts – choose to embrace a legitimate Asian martial art that offers empowerment and a break with the conventional model of women being defenseless individuals?
For many years during the genesis of the martial arts in America, it was unusual for a woman to train in tae kwon do. “Dungeon dojangs” situated in cellars and back alleys, or in gyms exclusively for men, did not make ideal training environments for the would-be female practitioner and were often unsafe in any case. Couple this with the fact that it was onlywithin the past few decades that women began to penetrate the glass ceiling of martial arts in Korea, the homeland of tae kwon do, and an onerous history begins to materialize. Yet, this pattern was destined to be broken by the vanguard of women’s rights sweeping through Western culture.
Today, there is little doubt that women of all ages can benefit significantly from a sincere study of traditional tae kwon do. Serenity of mind through meditation, confidence, instilled by drilling in self-defense, physical-fitness gained through vigorous training, all multiply to create an individual that is greater than the sum of their parts. This synergy can be seen as a vehicle for the empowerment of women in dojangs across the nation, and now, the world.
Moreover, it is not women who exclusively benefit from tae kwon do, but the art of tae kwon do itself that gains from a women’s touch. Children’s classes at many schools profit greatly from the compassion and patience female instructors afford their eager pupils. Many, being mothers themselves, have a unique understanding of how to approach enthusiastic youngsters that to some may prove problematic. Likewise, as is the case in our school, women instructors provide valuable insight when it comes to the composition of techniques in women’s self-defense courses. They, more than anyone, appreciate the threats posed by a potential male predator and can interface with their peers in a serious and meaningful manner. Having seen the results of skills practiced against their male counterparts, female martial artists can impart the importance of speed, balance, and the element of surprise in tandem with the will to execute an effective defensive strategy. Whereas men often rely principally on strength, a woman must rely on the above in order to extricate themselves safely from an altercation, and who better to impart this knowledge than another woman.
Adding yet another dimension to their practice, rather than perceive tae kwon do as a pure form of self-defense, women, as well as men, can enjoy the discipline simply for the art of it. My column in the January 2008 issue of TaeKwonDo Times touches on this subject. Keeping in mind that the traditional martial art of Korea is as much an avenue for expressing bodily motion in the spatial plane as it is a valid system of self-defense, we can appreciate how spiritually uplifting the execution of precise technique can be.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, resolutely stepping across the threshold of the dojang door and committing to a regimen of disciplined training categorically states to a woman that they refuse to be a victim any longer - not simply to the threat of bodily harm, but to the false notion that there is relatively little they can do to significantly alter their place in a society that has long discriminated against their sex. Some years ago an article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that employers are more likely to hire an individual who has practiced a martial art over other candidates due to the commitment, courtesy, and self-control intrinsic to the pursuit. These principles clearly bolster the worldview of any practitioner, but imagine what this perspective can do for individuals of either gender, who are used to living under the shadow of repression no matter how benign or unintentional?
When I look out over a class dominated by my female students, I feel a sense of pride in their acquired power, skillful precision, and newly-found confidence as they progress on their journey from white to high ranking black belt. Watching them spar, executing well placed jumping back and spinning hook kicks within inches of their partners vital points, I cannot help but think how my confused instructor friend would feel if he came in full contact with any one of these techniques. Perhaps he would change his outlook of tae kwon do after experiencing a woman’s touch of this nature!
Master Doug Cook, a 6th dan black belt, is head instructor of the Chosun Taekwondo Academy located in Warwick, New York, a student of Grandmaster Richard Chun, and author of the 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 co-authored with Grandmaster Richard Chun published by YMAA Publications, Inc. He can be reached for discussions or seminars at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.chosuntkd.com.