If you consider yourself a true fan of martial arts, you’ve seen this done at least once, be it in movies or in passing a group of students on your way to your destination:
The students are standing in an empty field, perfectly aligned if in groups, isolated if alone. They’re moving, performing kicks, and always seem to know just what move should come next. Their actions are fast and sharp or slow and controlled, but they’re always moving.
Then, as quickly as it begins, it is over. The students reset themselves, facing what appears to be the original position, and relax. They may even bow.
I saw my first official taekwondo form within the first three months of joining my dojang. I went to observe a black belt test and was amazed when the applicants were 9, 10, and 11 years old. What amazed me more, however, was when they were arranged to begin all eight of the basic Taekwondo forms – the pumsae – required to gain your black belt. And they were required to do them consecutively.
Each form took approximately two minutes. That equated to sixteen minutes of nonstop movement.
(Doesn’t sound like a long time? Try kicking and punching and jumping nonstop throughout the first half of your favorite sitcom, and let’s see how you feel afterward.)
When they were done, the children were trembling and gasping for breath, but they never broke stance. They bowed to our master instructor and completed the rest of their test.
It was the forms that cemented my love of martial arts, my desire to develop that same flow and mentality.
A pumsae (also known as a martial arts form) is a pre-established series of techniques used as interval training as well as to enhance the physicality and mentality of its practitioners. To an onlooker, a form may appear as if the artist is fighting a series of invisible opponents – and in fact, that is a part of what is happening.
The complexity of forms can range between a line of simple steps and punches to a flurry of spins, kicks and weapon handling that doesn’t stop until the artist is planted back on his feet, in the exact spot where he began.
Call them katas in karate and judo, akas in Burmese martial arts, hyung in taekwondo, quyen in Vietnamese, and taolu in Chinese. They’re all forms, and they’re all vital as a part of the martial system. To dismiss a form as unimportant is to miss 50% of the point, as is running from a fight screaming like a girl when you could gently and confidently disarm your adversary and save face in the process.
The current set of forms recognized by the World Taekwondo Headquarters (also known as Kukkiwon) is known as Taeguk. Taeguk is the Korean word describing the unity of Yin and Yang in the philosophy known as the I Ching. Believe it or not, but the Chinese word for this same unity is “taich’i”. Sound familiar? Like nature itself, all true martial arts are connected.
Yin and Yang play a heavy role in the martial arts forms, as does philosophy. Each of the poomsae is linked to an element that, upon its mastery, will allow its student to reach a higher level of enlightenment. Each form is also linked to a trigram, a set of lines that again display varying levels of balance between the forces of light and dark, hard and soft, high and low. Understanding this will allow you to deepen your understanding and connection with each form.
Below is a list of the eight basic forms of taekwondo, known altogether as “poomsae Taegeuk”. Listed in parentheses beside each one is the element one should focus on to reach the peak of understanding for that specific form.
- Taegeuk Il Jang (Heaven and Light, the Universe)
- Taegeuk Yi Jang (A Lake; joy)
- Taegeuk Sam Jang (Fire)
- Taegeuk Sa Jang (Thunder)
- Taegeuk O Jang (Wind)
- Taegeuk Juk Jang (Water)
- Taegeuk Chil Jang (Mountain)
- Taegeuk Pal Jang (Earth)
Over the next several weeks, I will profile each of these forms as well as provide a pretty little video demonstration of the form in motion. Namely, me doing the forms. No pressure.
Since I have only been performing taekwondo for a short amount of time, I hope to do these forms the justice and the attention they deserve. If not…well, as least I went down kicking.
So to speak.