Seeking Enlightenment in Hapkido by KJN Ronald Stone
Perhaps this article should have been entitled “Monkey See Monkey Do produces more Monkeys.” Regardless, the point is to convince martial arts educators that without a thorough understanding of the how, what, why and when of martial techniques instructors cannot fulfill their prime directive, which is to correctly educate their students.
Teaching a self-defense technique without a historical understanding of what and why the technique truly is, and when it is meant to be applied represents not only substandard instruction but can also be a danger to the unfortunate student who misapplies it.
To explain what I mean when I say that with age comes enlightenment, I should point out how conflicted I was with the concept of step sparring. Anyone in the martial arts will recognize the one, three or five step sparring routines practiced by having two partners line up. One attacks forward, perhaps with a punch or chop, while the other backs up and counters with a block or kick of some sort. This practice drill is almost universally practiced in all arts, but I was puzzled by the rigidity and artificial feel to it. I did, however, obediently practice such drills for years.
As it turns out I was puzzled because I never understood the true nature of the drills. Like most martial artists I believed they were a form of practicing for combat. I was confused because I had never seen a real fight proceed in this manner. It wasn’t until I studied for my Master level exam that I discovered that these practice drills were never meant to teach combat fighting, but rather to break the monotony of practicing all the punches, blocks and kicks necessary to fight. Step sparring was never created to make the student memorize drills and then wait for those exact attack sequences.
It is essential to develop automatic muscle memory to properly perform a technique by reflex. Merely practicing rote repetition of high blocks and straight punches over and over, while necessary, would have led to a mass exodus of bored students. The development of step routines was merely an instructional device to help continue muscle memory training while breaking the monotony of rote drills. Combat fighting and realistic full speed self defense instruction doesn’t usually begin until master level on up.
Another common misconception concerns one of the most taught techniques in Karate or Tae Kwon do type styles. This involves a turn during forms (usually to the left) with a straight “down block” of the arm followed by a straight punch. For over forty years I have seen this explained almost universally in school after school as a block against a low kick from the side with a follow-up punch technique to the chest.
I’d suggest trying to really block a properly performed fast hard kick with that type of block and then let me know how that fractured arm thing is working out for you. This instructional blunder arises from a misinterpretation of the technique that was later taught by repetition.
The true technique as originally conceived was a defense against a double lapel grab. Since they had no video back then, 14th century diagrams show the hand positions in various frames. Performed as the technique was meant to be, the right hand reaches under the attacker’s arms which are both grabbing your lapel. The left arm reaches around behind the attacker head and grabs the left ear. (In diagram form this mistakenly looks like a hand to your own ear placement move followed into a block.) You were supposed to grab the attacker’s ear, not head, because some attackers are bald or wearing a helmet.
The true technique movement is to then pull your left hand holding the opponent’s left ear down and to the left while turning your body to the left. The right hand simultaneously squeezes the radial nerve of his right arm at the elbow and pulls across to the right at the same time. Your left turns off balances the attacker down and he falls to his back side. As he is getting up, he is thus set up for a downward fatal punch to the back of the neck. (Remember original martial arts forms are about preparing for real situations.)
Understanding the true nature of a technique can mean the difference between success and a broken forearm. Don’t believe me? Then try asking someone who knows how to read Japanese, Chinese and Korean like I did.
Another example of the monkey see monkey do approach to instruction is the left hand down and curving inward hook movement combined with a downward tiger claw. As taught in many Korean forms this has been Americanized to portray a leg catch with the left hand combined with a right claw strike to the knee.
This is where actually speaking Korean and understanding the art comes in handy. It is practically impossible to break or cripple the top of a knee with this type of strike. The original technique is meant to be a defense against a bear hug. The left hand, low curving “leg catch” is meant to encircle the attacker’s lower back squeezing them tight (not grabbing his leg). The tiger claw instead of striking the imaginary leg at the knee is a portrayal of a tiger claw push to the attacker’s throat from inside the bear hug which bends him over backwards away from you and down, breaking out of the bear hug. (Makes more sense than trying to snap an extended knee from over the top, doesn’t it?)
Ever notice how those martial artists who speak the language of their art (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc.) seem to be more proficient and produce better students? Perhaps it’s because they understand the techniques and don’t just demonstrate what they have seen on a video or at one day seminar. Those who have read my past columns extolling the virtues of legitimacy in the martial arts will recognize my inference here that it is better to study from a certified master instructor who can trace his lineage back to the country of origin and who studies in intimate and constant contact with an educated instructor.
By lineage I mean martial arts lineage and not race. By constant contact I mean training together on a frequent basis, not merely having cross-country phone conversations. By certified I mean having passed an instructors course recognized by the country of origin’s governing body, not from someone in Cincinnati or Texas.
Remember, when a martial artist says he or she has trained with Grandmaster X, it is supposed to mean that he has been educated by him, not simply practiced with him at a seminar.
Such problems arise not only from boastful students but also from those of higher rank. Sadly, there are many Koreans, Japanese and others who exaggerated their ranks by several degrees upon arrival in the USA and who for a price will promote anyone. Such greed and ego are not only a disservice to the art but a danger to students.
Ever heard of a scissor block? It is practiced in several Korean forms. Well surprise, it is not actually a block. The technique isn’t meant to catch a lance and snap it or break up a straight punch. It is meant as an escape from a wrist grab. The left arm strikes downward to the forearm of the attacker and the right arm escapes up and inward thus giving the diagram appearance of the letter X. You wouldn’t know that unless you talked to one educated in the history of the art, not merely skilled in mimicking its performance.
Right now, some of you are beginning to wonder if your instruction is adequate. The simple answer is how do I know. All I can tell you is that you should seek out the most knowledgeable instructors, check and double check their credentials and research what you are taught. Do not be rigidly bound to a school merely because of rapid promotion or because it has fancy mats. If you want to be a martial artist, then study like any true artist: long and hard and with recognized artists. When a New York tourist once asked how to get to Carnegie Hall the reply he received was “Practice, practice, and more practice.” To that I would remind you of the adage. Those who do not understand history are bound to repeat its mistakes. Learn the history of your art.
About the author: R.W. Stone is currently a practicing veterinarian in Central Florida. He is an avid horseman, a master ranked martial artist, a best-selling western author, and a firearms enthusiast. After joining a martial arts school in 1970 Stone started studying Yudo with a Korean grandmaster. He eventually became a member of the Judo team of the University of Illinois. It was at the University that a Korean classmate and friend introduced him to Tae Kwon do. After graduating veterinary college, he found the martial arts becoming too sports oriented and eventually after moving from Miami to Central Florida he sought out a Hapkido grandmaster. Currently Stone is ranked 8th dan in Haemukwan Hapkido, 4th dan in Daehan Yudo and a second dan in Kukki Taekwondo. He is the Hapkido instructor at the American Dragon Martial Arts Academies.
Be sure to follow us on social media.
- Like our page at https://www.facebook.com/internationalindependenthapkidoalliance
- Subscribe to our channel at https://www.youtube.com/worldhapkidonews
- Join our group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/koreanmartialarts