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A Purpose in the Pattern

When introducing Taekwon-do to the world, Grandmaster General Choi Hong Hi detailed that the art comprised five key areas of practice (Taekwon-Do Goosung) . The theory was that these were essentially mutually beneficial and in no means exclusive. The core focus being on the physical development of the student to achieving a capability in the art for effective personal defence.

“Taekwon-Do is composed of fundamental movements, patterns, dallyon, sparring and self defense techniques that are so closely related that it is impossible to segregate one phase of instruction from another.”

Choi Hong Hi Taekwon-do (The Korean Art of Self Defence) 5th Ed ITF 1999 p.725

He further proposed these five elements formed a ‘Cycle of Taekwon-Do’ (Soonhwan Do) in which all were demonstrated as being interdependent and reciprocal in respect of the benefits provided and obtained.

One of these key areas/elements of practice that promotes much discussion, controversy and confusion, is patterns (Tul). (For the purpose of this article we will use the term published by GM Choi Hong Hi in Taekwon-Do 5th Ed. 1999. We recognise that there are however a variety of titles in use to describe this type of training format  e.g. forms, hyung, tul, poomse, kata.)

Existent in some form in most of not all martial arts, patterns are pre-choreographed sequences of movements. Grandmaster Choi defined patterns as:

“...various fundamental movements, most of which represent either attack or defense techniques, set into a fixed or logical sequence.”

Choi Hong Hi Taekwon-do (The Korean Art of Self Defence) 5th Ed ITF 1999 p.524

He further suggests that:

“The student systematically deals with several imaginary opponents under various assumptions, using every available attacking and blocking tool from different directions.

Thus pattern practice enables the student to go through many fundamental movements in series, to develop sparring techniques, improve flexibility of movements, master body shifting, build muscles and breath control, develop fluid and smooth motions, and gain rythmical movements.”

Choi Hong Hi Taekwon-do (The Korean Art of Self Defence) 5th Ed ITF 1999 p.524

In this way a background is provided as to the potential benefits a student may derive from practice of patterns.

Grandmaster Choi further contextualises the practice of patterns by suggesting:

“In short, a pattern can be compared with a unit tactic or a word, if fundamental movement is an individual soldier’s training or alphabet. Accordingly, pattern, the ledger of every movement, is a series of sparring, power, feats and characteristic beauty.”

Choi Hong Hi Taekwon-do (The Korean Art of Self Defence) 5th Ed ITF 1999 p.524

Here he suggests some key points for further discussion. Patterns are a ‘ledger of every movement’ and then by this a record of fundamental movements. Also patterns are aesthetic in nature, performed as much for the ‘characteristic beauty’ of the movements as for the physical benefits derived from such practice. At no point in his presentation of this element of practice does Grandmaster Choi suggest that the practice of patterns is directly the practice of self/personal defence techniques and tactics.

The patterns that we practice and study at Renegade Martial Arts are those suggested in Grandmaster Choi’s initial Taekwon-do publication ‘Taekwon-Do The Art of Self Defence’ published 1965. Here General Choi presented 20 patterns as The Ch’ang Hon school (these being those we practice) and 9 patterns under the banner of The Sho-Rin and Sho-Rei schools. The former are those developed by General Choi, the later being fundamentally Japanese or Okinawan in origin. It is important that we take time to recognise that all these patterns were originally included within the pantheon of ‘Taekwon-Do’ patterns. Indeed time, intentional misinterpretation and unintentional evolution has created the current system of practice where-by one school may well practice a wholly different set of patterns to another and yet still refer to their art as being ‘Taekwon-Do’. It is not the intention here to suggest that one ‘school’ of patterns is more or less appropriate than another. Neither is the scope of this article to investigate the common roots of the arts and get lost in the confusion that often surrounds the variety of histories available. However it is indeed the case that the creation of the Taekwon-Do patterns owes a great deal to those martial arts which came before, and not least those originating from Japan, China and Okinawa. Further in this regard it can be accepted that the principles concerning the practice of patterns within these arts are as relevant to Taekwon-do as they are to that specific art itself. For example, if we look at Taekwon-do’s closest martial art cousin, Shotokan Karate, it’s not just possible to identify similarities in respect of the individual component techniques of the patterns, it’s actually possible to point fingers directly at similar (if not identical) ‘fixed or logical sequences’. 

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of Shotokan Karate, stated the following concerning kata practice:

‘Once kata has been learned, it must be practised repeatedly until it can be applied in an emergency, for knowledge of just the sequence of a kata in karate is useless.’

‘To practice kata is not to memorize an order. Find the katas that work for you, understand them, digest them and stick with them for life.’

‘A student well versed in even one technique will naturally see corresponding points in other techniques. An upper level punch, a lower punch, a front punch and a reverse punch are all essentially the same. Looking over thirty-odd kata, he should be able to see that they are essentially variations on just a handful.’

The essence of these quotes would appear to suggest that the practice of kata is directed towards a more directly functional result than merely the aesthetic, sparring and fitness benefits alluded to by General Choi.

Further Kenwa Mabuni, founder of the Shito-Ryu school of Karate suggests:

‘ A kata is not fixed or immoveable. Like water, it’s ever changing and fits itself to the shape of the vessel containing it. However, kata are some kind of beautiful competitive dance, but a grand martial art of self defense - which determines life and death.’

‘The meaning of the directions in kata is not well understood, and frequently mistakes are made in the interpretation of kata movements. In extreme cases, it is sometimes heard that “this kata moves in 8 directions so it is designed for fighting 8 opponents” or some such nonsense.”

‘Do not fall into the trap of thinking that just because a kata begins to the left that the opponent is attacking from the left.’

From Mabuni we are more directly informed that the techniques and fixed sequences in patterns are actually fluid. This goes in line with General Choi’s analogy of a pattern being a word, which is composed of  ‘letters’ i.e. fundamental techniques it contains. These individual letters can be used to make different words, and even connected to other letters (techniques) which may yet not be contained in this specific ‘word’ (pattern) but are found in other words (patterns). Mabuni, as Funakoshi, reflected in his words not only the practicality of function within the patterns (kata) but also the need to retain fluidity in the interpretation and application of them. Mabuni seems further to add that the aesthetic beauty of the pattern is somewhat less important than it’s function, which would further appear to contradict the ‘feats and characteristic beauty’ suggested by General Choi.

A further point supporting fluidity in interpretation of patterns can be found in some of the words of Choki Motobu, founder of Motobu-Ryu. 

'The techniques of kata have their limits and were never intended to be used against an opponent in the arena or battlefield.’

It is clear then that the practice of patterns was intended to be more than a mere ‘characteristically beautiful’ training drill to promote health, fitness and wellbeing. Moreover when looking at some of the thoughts of the traditional karate masters, pattern practice was never intended to provide all the answers. So the question remains, why does it exist at all?

In short there's probably not a right answer here. Martial arts practice is a wholly individually motivated thing, what creates action for one person might not be the same for the next. However we can generally suggest some possible answers to what the role and function of pattern practice is. In some way here we need to go back to the original purposes suggested by General Choi. 

Keeping in mind that pattern practice is only one of 5 mutually beneficial and supportive elements of Taekwon-do training, one of the primary reasons has to be centered around the opportunity to repeat practice fundamental movements. Whilst this includes the attacking and defensive techniques, it is in no way simply limited to these. There's a host of key and more general physiological benefits here, for example cardiovascular fitness (through activity specific not generalised movements), balance, neuromuscular coordination and specific motor recruitment, in addition to the physical benefits discussed by General Choi. 

Then let's specially look at those attacking and defensive techniques. Here is the biggest area of controversy as far as the wider martial arts community goes. The essential question of whether these techniques work for real? To be honest and frank the answer is probably no. The research done by luminaries in the personal defence arena (such as Rory Miller and Tony Blauer) suggest that fine motor coordination goes out of the window in the chaos of non-consensual (antisocial) and unexpected assault. The initial reaction here is what matters. Given the repeat nature of the practice, with correct visualisation thrown in, it's possible to suggest that some pretty heavy neuromuscular reinforcement can be found in pattern practice. How many close or open hand blocks can you do in one pattern? How many guarding type movements? All of which can be used as a reactive gross motor reaction to frame against an immediate and unexpected assault. This isn't to suggest that the patterns hold all the answers here, but they provide a context for repetitive training which is a key part of building the overall response. 

Next let's go back and consider that idea of fluidity in application. General Choi refers to a ledger of techniques, letters from which we make words. Associate this with the ideas of Funakoshi, Mabuni and Motobu around fluid interpretation and we get to a place where literal interpretation of any pattern is actually irrelevant. Ok so within the pattern it's doubtless there are logical sequences, one movement fluidly creating the next. It's quite possible that the letters can be jumbled up in a very different way too though. This approach gives us a set of encyclopedias or clubbing then all together a dictionary from which we can select individual elements and join them with other elements from different patterns. This isn't to form other patterns, rather to engender an environment where technical application can be realised. 

A further point to the necessity to practice patterns is to facilitate the full force rehearsal of techniques which would otherwise be impractical. For example, full power striking drills to a training partner's soft targets like the throat, eyes, ears or groin are essentially not going to happen in a reputable setting. It is however important that the correct movement patterns are acquired and in one guise, certain movements in certain patterns provide opportunity to do just this. 

The final point here and possibly the most important to recognise is patterns exist in Taekwon-do because they provide a way. This is a bit of a stretch for some to get hold of and it's one of the key differences between traditional martial arts and combatives/combat sports. The do (way) in Taekwon-do is there because the art is a means to generating physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well being. It's skill based yes, but understanding and practicing the art doesn't solely rely on the acquisition and development of skill. It's not learning defensive techniques because you're going to war. It's not shadow boxing because you're going into a competitive arena. It's a way to understand the deeper recesses of you as a person. It's a means of shining a metaphorical light into the darker corners of you and understanding who you are on a much deeper basis. Pattern practice allows for this deeper, almost meditative, cognitive activity to occur in a way that few other activities do. 

In conclusion here let's recognise again that alone patterns are one singular element of a bigger whole. They provide some reciprocal benefits which impact all other aspects of that cycle of Taekwon-do. It's wholly unlikely that they contain all the answers and it's essential that they are used in conjunction with a balance variety of other drills (Iain Abernethy has done some fantastic posts about the importance of observing a Training Matrix, well worth looking into). 

Ultimately it comes down to investigation, personal research and analysis. Literal interpretation of patterns is not the way and it's more often than not that a block just simply isn't and was never intended to be a block, but it's only through continued practice, analysis and creativity we can get to that point suggested by Funakoshi. The point at which we find what patterns work for us and stick with them for life! 


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