In this second instalment on the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns, I will focus on the acceleration of body mass.
Quick Movements versus Forceful Movements
People are often surprised at how slow, unhurried the ITF patterns seem to be. This is true as far as the tempo of the patterns is concerned. With few exceptions there is no urgency to rush from one technique to another technique. The techniques are seldom bundled in clusters of frantic defences and attacks. The patterns are not the primary place for acquiring fighting skills; they are rather “drills” for teaching certain concepts of movement; i.e. kinaesthetics. One such a kinaesthetic concept that patterns are primarily concerned with is to differentiate between mere quick movements versus forceful movements. Therefore, the focus of the ITF patterns is not on moving the limbs very quickly, like for instance in American Kenpo or Whin Chun where the opponent is overwhelmed with a barrage of very rapid strikes.
The video below shows American Kenpo Grandmaster Ted Parker demonstrating their Short Form 3. Once the form gets going, notice the hurried urgency with which it is performed.
Such a urgency is most likely to reflect the hurriedness of a real combat situation. The purpose of the ITF patterns is not shadow-boxing, requiring a flurry of attacks and defences.
Instead, the purpose of the patterns is to teach the practitioner to “accelerate as much body mass as possible in the direction of the technique, with emphasis on strong exhalation, and without compromising your balance and posture.” The Fundamental Movements, as practised in the patterns, are primarily concerned with Newton's Second Law of Motion; i.e. Force = Mass x Acceleration. For nearly every movement in the patterns there must be a lot of mass accelerated. Practising flailing the limbs quickly is not the purpose of the patterns. Rather, the whole body mass should be activated for each technique.
In the patterns, the aim is not really to learn how to move quickly; instead, the aim is to learn how to truly accelerate as much of the body's mass behind the technique as possible, but also in a whip-like manner known as sequential motion or kinetic chaining. This entails that different parts of the body initiates the movement at different times.
In the video below Grandmaster Choi Jung-Hwa looks at an exampled of a 90° turn into a forearm block as found in the pattern Chon-Ji, and speaks about the importance of employing the waist to activate more of the body's mass, rather than just the arm for blocking. If one turns the waist too early it doesn't contribute to the momentum of the block. Different parts of the body is activated at different times in order to create the most momentum.
To quote Bruce Lee¹ on the subject of sequential motion:
The timing is such that each segment adds its speed to that of the others. The shortened lever principle is used to accentuate many of the particular speeds of this uncoil or whip. The rotation of each segment around its particular joint-fulcrum is made at high speed for that particular part; but each segment rate is accelerated tremendously because it rotates around a fulcrum already highly accelerated.
In the ITF patterns the techniques are often started with deliberate relaxation—corresponding with the first part of the sine wave motion. From here, however, the technique is accelerated in such a way that as much of the body mass as possible is engaged, adding to the force of the technique. For instance, when punching it is not merely the weight of the arm that is accelerated for the punch, but the mass of the whole body is engaged behind the punch, while sequential motion is applied to accelerate the punch in a whip-like fashion.
Bruce Lee, again, explains how this would work with analogies from sport:
In throwing a ball, all the accumulated speeds of the body are present at the elbow when the forearm snaps over its fast-moving elbow-fulcrum. . . An important aspect of this multiple action of acceleration is the introduction of each segment movement as late as possible in order to take full advantage of the peak acceleration of its fulcrum. The arm is kept so far behind that the chest muscles pulling against it are tensed and stretched. The final wrist snap is postponed until the last instant before release or, in striking, before contact. In football, the punter puts the last snap into his knee and foot as, or a shade after, he makes contact with the ball. It is this last moment acceleration that is meant by ‘block through the man’ in football or ‘punch through the man’ in boxing. The principle is to preserve the maximum acceleration up to the last instant of contact. Regardless of distance, the final phase of a movement should be the fastest. Maintaining this increasing acceleration as long as there is contact is sound. . .
One of the simplest ways to get the whole body's mass accelerated is by employing the constant pull of gravity. Much of the patterns, therefore, is concerned with teaching the practitioner “controlled falling”. In many of the techniques, the practitioner is actually “falling” into them, dropping his or her body weight from a higher position to a lower position and thereby converting potential energy into kinetic energy. Also, when stepping or sliding the body momentum is in a manner of speaking thrown into the technique, so that one is falling towards the target. In ITF Taekwon-Do we use this “falling” as a way to activate our body's mass, and then further accelerate the technique, using the aforementioned sequential motion method, which usually piggybacks on the “fall”; or put differently, while “falling” one accelerates different parts of the body sequentially in a whip-like fashion, thereby adding gravity's force with your own force.
It is important here to understand why I'm referring to it as “controlled falling” and not merely “falling”. One of the cardinal concepts in ITF Taekwon-Do is “to bring the action of [ones hands and feet] into one singe coordinated action . . .” at the same focused moment. Many martial arts believe it proper to first root, then punch when stepping. For instance, one would find in most systems of Karate that they will step, first plant the foot, and then punch. This is to ensure good structure and stability before punching. While this is a valid strategy, it does lose out on some of the power that can be gained from the forward momentum of the step. The problem with first placing your foot and then punching, is that once your foot lands—roots—the momentum dissipates into the ground.
Therefore, ITF Taekwon-Do, and some other martial arts like Xingyi, coordinate their movement so that their stepping foot lands at the same moment as the striking hand. In this way, the technique properly employs the whole momentum of the moving body and transfers this force through the technique (hand) into the target. Of course this is a basic concept in ITF Taekwon-Do and is practised constantly as part of our fundamental movements, but it is particularly in the patterns where we are constantly confronted with this principle in various types of techniques and contexts.
Using Gravity for Initiating Motion
Something I particularly find interesting about this principle when combined with ITF's focus on relaxation is how one learns to initiate movement of the body by using gravity's force, rather than one's own muscular force.
Doing so allows you to stay in a state of relaxation much longer than if you were to initiate your movement through muscular force. (The emphasis on relaxation was addressed in the previous post.)
For instance, a typical forward stepping punch in Karate requires that the Karateka thrusts forward with his rear foot. On the other hand, in ITF Taekwon-Do the way to initiate motion in the patterns is not by immediately thrusting with the rear leg, but rather by first relaxing the forward leg which causes the body to “fall” forward, so that the body's mass is brought forward onto the front leg in a natural, literally effortless way. This “falling” momentum is then capitalised on by the sequential acceleration of the different parts of the body later in the step. It is true that from start to finish the Karateka's forward stepping punch would be faster; however, the ITF practitioner's emphasis on accelerating more body mass is greater. Of course, it is important to remember that the aim of the patterns is not to teach fast, hurried defending and attacking, as might be the case in Karate. For more realistic defending and counter-attacking training other parts of the ITF pedagogy is used. The ITF patterns is building kinaesthetic awareness, and in this instance the goal is to acquire the ability to accelerate body mass sequentially and use gravity where appropriate to help with this, while emphasising relaxation.
Unhurried Tempo, but Hurried Acceleration
It would be wrong to think, however, that the practitioner is not learning to move quickly. Actually, because there is a focus on acceleration, not merely on hurriedness, the practitioner learns how to accelerate quite dramatically.
Take a look at this video that shows a pattern in slow motion—the slow motion starts at 3:22. Notice, although each movement starts very slow, how fast they accelerate towards the end of each movement.
Even in a video that is artificially slowed down, one can see that the techniques are not slow throughout—in fact, at the moments just before impact, the techniques are extremely fast (even while shown in slow motion!).
So what is it that encourages this sudden acceleration? There is a principle in ITF Taekwon-Do that states that movements of the hands, feet and breath should finish at the same time—“To bring the action of [everything] into one singe coordinated action . . .”
In other words, for example in the case of a stepping back-fist strike, by the time the stepping foot is planted, the attack (the back-fist strike) should have landed also. In ITF Taekwon-Do one would generally not first step, root your foot, and then strike, as the moment your stepping food lands (and roots your body weight) the body's momentum is dispersed into the ground. So the back-fist strike should occur at the moment or slightly just before the stepping foot roots, causing the accelerated mass of your whole body to “fall” into the strike.
However, in the whole sequence of body parts being accelerated sequentially the striking arm actually starts quite late in moving towards it's target. The motion starts in the legs, then the hips, then the shoulders, then the elbow and lastly the forearm and wrist is flicked. This means that the arm should move very quickly to catch up with the motion of the rest of the body. While the patterns have no urgency in tempo, they definitely have an urgency in finishing the technique before the stepping foot has rooted (or before the “controlled fall” is finished). The focus is therefore not merely on moving quickly from technique to technique; rather, the focus is on accelerating every individual technique sequentially and as quickly as possible so that “the final phase of [the] movement [is] the fastest,” with a significant amount of body mass engaged behind it.
In conclusion, a primary value of the patterns is to supply an environment in which to drill the acceleration of body mass in techniques, while using sequential motion to create a whip-like effect, and using gravity's force as an aid where appropriate. Moving with a sense of relaxation is a key ingredient in this regard. Although there is generally no sense of urgency in between techniques (with some exceptions), there is a definite sense of urgency in accelerating each individual technique quite rapidly.
In the next instalment(s) on what I consider the kinaesthetic value of the ITF patterns I will look at rhythm and timing, and breathing.
1. Bruce Lee, “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do”