Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Retrospective of my Taekwondo Training

Bodan Essay by Brian Parkinson  October, 2015               

    It’s January 30, 2013 around 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m about to embark on an amazing journey.  One year of waiting has come to an end.  Today is the day I start training in Taekwondo.  I get dressed in my dobok for the first time, wrap my white belt around my waist and head out the door.  When I arrive at the dojang, I am confronted with a scene I am unaccustomed to.   When I bring my children for the youth classes, the dojang is a flurry of activity.  The training floor is usually crowded with students and the sitting area with
108 stone steps at Golgulsa Temple
parents.   I have never seen the dojang as it is before me now.  The lights are off with only a few corner lights to provide some illumination.  There are no crowds of children off or on the floor and the sitting area is naturally empty.  Not that I expected the dojang to be crowded at 5:30 in the morning, but the tranquil scene before me contains a power and serenity I don’t think I could have been prepared for.   I am very nervous at this point as the class consists of only a few black belts, one bodan and, I, a white belt.  It doesn’t take long for me to embarrass myself.  Master Cook has us each in turn punch a target to count.  Of course I kept punching after Master Cook stopped counting.  I felt foolish, incompetent, and of course embarrassed.   No one makes a big deal about it though, just a reminder to pay attention and not anticipate.  I remind myself to not be so hard on myself and this was a valuable lesson as I have embarrassed myself several other times over the course of the last two and a half years.
  Master Cook often says that crossing the threshold of the dojang is the hardest part of training in taekwondo.  That doesn’t mean that the rest of it is easy.  Training in taekwondo is hard.  Trying to fit it into a busy work schedule at the time I started was even harder.  The weekly sunrise class was the only class I could attend when I began my training.  I barely had time to practice outside of the dojang and after a couple of weeks I thought about giving it up.  It just seemed to be too much to learn.  I wanted to do it but I thought maybe I just couldn’t fit it into my schedule after all.  I rebuked this notion and pressed on.  After a couple of months I was invited to test for yellow belt.  So much consternation and trepidation surrounded this first belt test that I feel the cathartic sense of elation when my fist smashed through the board would be hard to beat. 
                I advanced to yellow belt with a new-found confidence and determination to train.  I remember enjoying this belt cycle.  New techniques like back stance and side kick were of course challenging to learn but I never felt overwhelmed as I did at white belt.  I attended class regularly and after three months successfully tested for orange belt.  Orange belt is considered one of the more difficult color belts.  Many people realize at this belt level that taekwondo is not for them and quit.  I had resolved to never quit unless I had to for health or financial reasons at white belt, so that was never a concern for me.  I loved orange belt.  Its many challenges felt right somehow.  Progress in taekwondo often comes slow, sometimes almost imperceptive but at orange belt the progress felt tangible and this only spurred on my desire to train.  I was even graced with an award for outstanding achievement at the belt test.  Every time I look at that award atop my entertainment center in my living room, I can’t help but smile.
               The green and blue belt cycles were probably the hardest for me.  My wife had surgery during my green belt cycle and I found myself taking on just about all of the household work she normally does.  This left me physically drained but I tried to never show how tired I was on the floor.  Once I step on the floor of the dojang, I feel all other concerns must be set aside.  If I made mistakes, I vowed to practice more instead of making excuses due to fatigue.  It wasn’t easy though and I struggled through the entire green belt cycle.  At blue belt I had to take my own hiatus from training to have a cyst removed from my back.  My dermatologist forbade me to train for three weeks, unless I wanted to rip out my stitches and risk further infection.  Three weeks felt like three years.  I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from taekwondo which of course let all the demons of self-doubt run rampant.  I marked the date of my return in my appointment book and anxiously awaited its arrival.  When I was able to return, I had just enough time before the belt test to feel ready.  Blue belt came to end with my foot smashing through a board with an ax kick.
               Without a doubt purple belt will always be the most special for me.  It was during this belt cycle that my entire family traveled to S. Korea on the Chosun Korea tour.  I am not well traveled.  This was only the second time I had traveled outside of the United States.  I think I am still processing all of the ways in which that tour has affected me and my training.  From all day training with Master Ryan An to touring the brand new Taekwondon, I think I could write a separate essay just about Korea.  Of course there are some standout moments.  Performing poomsae at Tong-Il Jeon Shrine was a very powerful experience.  I can’t help but feel that a part of the Hwarang’s martial spirit came home with me.  Our last training session was with Grandmaster Gyoo Hyun Lee.  Although I didn’t get to train personally with Grandmaster Lee as he took the black belts, I was given a Master instructor, Master Lee, by Grandmaster Lee.  I was informed that Master Lee is a champion in Taeguk Oh Jang.  My disappointment over not getting to train with Grandmaster Lee evaporated immediately.  He personally assigned a master instructor who had won competitions in my form-what more could I ask for?  Although my wife and I tried as hard as we could, we struggled with the changes to the form and the language barrier.   Master Lee’s frustration was evident.  Master Lee was so frustrated with us at one point that he simply walked away from us.   I was reminded of Gichen Funakoshi performing the same form all night to the point of humiliation for Anko Itosu.  I refused to give up.  I kept performing the form.  Master Lee noticed that I continued even though he walked away and came back over and continued to teach.  When we posed for a group picture later on, he came and sat next to me for the photo, an honor to be sure.
               Shortly after returning from Korea, I successfully tested for my red belt.  Red belt is known as danger within the Gup system for the practitioner is in possession of advanced techniques at this point, but not necessarily the discipline required to use them wisely.  For me, red belt felt like turning a corner.  There are many new techniques at red belt like the first use of a strength motion in a poomsae that clearly set it apart from the earlier belts.  I remember Master Wynne teaching me Palgwe Oh Jang and stopping me after only the first few motions.  “Stop.  Go Back.  You need to show a better back stance”.   I did.   “Stop.  Your knife hand is pitched wrong.”  Good thing I had been through this with Master Lee in Korea.  I was undeterred.  I know Master Wynne was only trying to help me improve so I kept at it.  I don’t think I’ll ever start that form without thinking of her.
 The next two belts:  brown and high brown seem to have melded into one long period in my mind.  When testing for brown belt, I encountered a new problem.  The required break is a hop-step hook kick.  Even though kicking is not my strong-point, I felt confident about this break.  I stepped forward and unleashed the kick only to feel my foot bounce off the all too solid board.  As a lower belt, this would have undoubtedly rattled me a great deal.  Instead of allowing my initial failure to deter me, I reset and performed the kick again breaking the board easily.  Afterward, watching the video my son took of the break, my wife and I noticed that we had both done the exact same thing.  We both failed on the first try, reset and then broke the board.  At brown belt my Korea training again benefited me.  The first stepping basic for brown belt is cat stance.  Every Korean master began our training with a review of all stances so I didn’t feel as confused by this new stance as I probably would have been had I not trained in Korea.  On test day I went home with a high brown belt wrapped around my waist.  The first appearance of black in a belt let me know that this was it.  I was entering the home stretch of the color belt cycle.  The next belt test had me advancing to bodan with a spinning hook kick as the required break.  I don’t think I had been so nervous about a break since white belt but somehow I did it on the first try. 

               The last six months as a bodan have been very different.  For one thing, there is very little new to learn.  Palgwe Pal Jang is the only requirement that is truly brand new.  Since I have been practicing and reviewing the entire color belt curriculum all along, I never felt pressured to remember all the past techniques.  Instead, I have been trying to focus on all of the details and improve upon them.  Just because I learned back stance all the way back at yellow belt, doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.   As a result, I initially found bodan to be a fun belt.  While everyone else was confused at the beginning of the belt cycle by the new techniques they were learning, or stressing the upcoming belt test at the end of the cycle, I just had to keep training.  However over the last few weeks, I can feel a subtle and undeniable change occurring.  Much the way someone who has stayed up all night can sense the approaching dawn, I can sense a change occurring in my training.   I have always taken training in taekwondo seriously but now as I approach black belt I feel there is a responsibility to the art that wasn’t there before.  Master Cook often says that black belt is a license to learn and not a permit to quit.  I can’t agree more with this sentiment.  Being a black belt doesn’t mean resting on your laurels.  I feel that when that black belt is wrapped around my waist it doesn’t mean that I mastered the color belt curriculum.  It doesn’t mean that I have nothing else to learn.   It does mean that I persevered through the color belt curriculum and have now proved myself worthy of further instruction.  I am looking forward with great enthusiasm to exercising my license to learn.

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