After leg and kicking exercises we began on our hand routines. We punched again and again, our fists twisting their way quickly and powerfully from our waists, accelerating through the air and landing at imaginary points denoting the face and the mid section. Day after day, we learned to hit at the same place again and again, and our speed and power increased greatly with time. Punching well did not mean only power, it also meant precision and placement. We learned about the most vulnerable points of the face and the body and practiced repeatedly to make sure that our punches landed at the right spots all the time. Taekwondo is an art in which every blow or kick or chop is deadly, delivered with immense velocity and power. Thus, much energy is expended, so that one strives to be precise with every blow or kick. The logic is simple – a single Taekwondo kick or punch must be deadly enough to put the opponent out of action. And, since the punches are so strong, it is necessary to make sure that one does not injure one’s hands through the law of “every action has an equal, but opposite reaction.” For example, try hitting a brick wall with your fist and you will see that the harder you hit, the more you hurt.
So, we did things to make our hands into tough weapons. We learned to make the perfect fist – the four fingers curled tightly into the palm with the thumb placed as tightly over them. No loose ends. At first, the fingers dug into our palms and it hurt. Gradually we grew calluses on the palm where the finger tips dug in and it hurt less and less before disappearing with time. When we punched, the blows twisted their way in a very straight line (the fastest way to reach somewhere is by going in a straight line, and as for the twisting, think of how a bullet travels through the barrel of a gun). At the full stretch of the arms, the flat of the back of the fist along the knuckle head was always in perfect alignment with the wrist, so that no matter how hard the surface where our punch landed, the tight fist and the perfect alignment ensured that our hands were not hurt even when the punch was executed with full intensity. And this was how it was supposed to be in the art of Taekwondo. Every blow had to be destructive, that was what we were training for.
Fists of Fury
And, oh yes, when we hit, we hit with the first two knuckles of the fist (this guaranteed precision; and besides, if you hit using a smaller surface area there is more power). For example, a lance tip will penetrate skin, muscle and bone, a flat tip will not. Within a few months of starting the training, our first two knuckles were usually callused if not still bleeding. This was due to the countless knuckle push-ups we did in class every day as well as each night before sleeping and in the morning after awakening. At first there was much bleeding, then shedding of skin, then bleeding again and again, until finally, extremely tough calluses were formed on our knuckles. The effects of the knuckle push-ups were further supplemented by punching the hard gym bag routinely. The time came when our fists had become mighty weapons of destruction and we could punch through two-inch thick planks with ease.
How destructive our fists and our punches had become became clear to me once when I was still a Green Belt. A fight broke out in a restaurant I was in at one time. A gang of some ten rowdies had taken offense to something the waiter had said or done and they had surrounded and started to thrash the life out of the poor fellow. I intervened and to set things right quickly, threw two controlled punches at two of them, which had them kissing the walls. Then they came for me. I hit the one who seemed most threatening with a full intensity punch to the face. I don’t know, but the way I executed that punch must have been really impressive because they all froze as one. I don’t know exactly how I looked throwing that punch because it was a completely reflexive action, but besides being obviously an impressive performance, it was totally devastating. The guy I hit was unconscious while still on his feet and he toppled over backwards like a felled tree. The next thing I knew, the rest of them had all left the scene. Nobody wants to be hit like that I guess. Someone later told me that the poor fellow’s face had swollen up to double its size. I had punched him where I was trained to do, right at the junction between his mouth and his nose, a very delicate spot.
Besides the punch and the kicks, we were trained to toughen up our ridge hands, which we used for chopping to the neck, the bridge of the nose, and other soft parts of the body. We did this by constantly hitting a hard surface with the edge of our hands and against each other regularly, so that in time, we could break bricks with them without any discomfort. We also used the edge of the hand on the thumb side (opposite ridge hand) and these, too, were made tough with similar exercises. I have used this side of the hand to break piles of hard tiles at many demonstrations. By and by, our whole hands had become deadly weapons, including our fingers. The one thing I remember about my first interview for a job later on in life was when I was signing some papers and the interviewee remarked, “You have got very strong fingers.” I didn’t tell him that those fingers had sliced through one and a half inch planks on many occasions. How did our fingers become weapons? Simple: we did finger push-ups and hit the punching bag with our finger tips during training. First we used all fingers for push-ups, then gradually three, then two, then one, and finally, only the thumbs. Grueling? You bet it was.
Taekwondo also teaches one the art of close combat, meaning if someone grabs you, then you know what to do. And it is not as one might expect: that one just frees oneself from the opponent’s grip. No, in Taekwondo, close combat means using the other’s grappling actions to your advantage by responding in such a way as to immobilize him, or more often, break a few of his bones. For instance, if someone grabs you by the throat with two hands, what a Taekwondo practitioner does is this: he takes hold of one of his opponent’s hands and twists it outwards with the thumb firmly in his grip. The twisting movement outwards breaks the attacker’s elbow joint and all the while, because you have a firm hold on his thumb joint, he is totally in your control. Needless to say, the grip on your throat has already been broken because an attacker cannot squeeze your throat with one hand only. This is just an example of close combat tactics. There are many others. For instance, what if he grabs you from behind, or across your body, or your hand, or your lapels, your hair, and so on? Suffice it to say that woe befall anyone who tries to grapple with a well trained Taekwondo practitioner.
Close combat does not exactly comprise of defensive techniques in Taekwondo. Similarly, our blocking techniques were also really not completely of a defensive nature. Our blocks were conducted with the intention to discourage any more attacks. Thus, if someone throws a punch at you, you don’t step back to retreat. You step back sideways (the side stance with the front leg slightly cocked and most of the body weight on the back foot) and your hands move up from their position at the waist in a fast movement so that the edge of the blocking hand hits the inside of the opponent’s attacking hand’s wrist with speed and power. The effect is numbing, to the attacker that is. Painful too, because what you have hit is one of the slender bones, probably with a nerve running along it. Thus, the numbness. Another move to decapacitate the attacker is to move sideways in a horse riding stance, using both hand edges to strike his stretched arm, one edge hitting the wrist and the other the elbow. The former has a similar effect as described above, and the latter movement can dislocate the elbow joint. Taekwondo is not really what one would say “an art for self defense”, as martial arts are usually referred to. Perhaps one could justify it by harking back to the age old principle that says, “a good offense is the best defense.”
Balance, Focus and Concentration
And now we come to one of the most important aspects of Taekwondo: concentration. Our meditations at the beginning and at the end of exercises were, of course, part of the training to develop concentration, but that was not the only thing. Every move we made when training required concentration. Balance required one to be totally focused so that even when kicking very high and very fast the sole of our standing leg did not leave the ground even a quarter of an inch. Often it is the case that one is tempted to gain more power by swiveling on a narrower point, which means lifting the feet a little and turning on a heel. This is a temptation that we learned to avoid through focus and concentration. Concentration was needed to direct our attacks to the most vulnerable parts of the body and in this, as well as in other moves such as when delivering spinning kicks, our minds were as sharp as were our eyes. We learned to turn our heads very swiftly so that our eyes could pinpoint targets and be aware of dangers instantaneously, and our minds could already visualize the conclusion of our moves even as our legs or hands were on the way to deliver their devastating messages. Thus, our exercises laid a good deal of emphasis on neck exercises too, as well as on flexibility. And concentration at all times.
Whatever it may be referred to as, one should be clear on one aspect of Taekwondo: it is first and foremost as good an art form as any. And the various ‘patterns’ (pumsae) we practiced every day are an additional factor to reinforce this fact. We had to practice them day after day until the time came when all 30 of us moved as one. Each blow, each kick and each block had to be executed with power, speed, precision and control. Our stances at all times had to be perfect, whether front stance, back stance, horse riding stance, or any other. Balance was the key for correct action and agility, the foundation for spectacular moves.
Taekwondo is a wonderful martial art in that it gives you humility born out of confidence, an aura (if you are really devoted), agility, swiftness and grace. But it is equally a deadly art, giving you strength, power and lethality and thus transforming you into a dangerous person to be up against. All this a Taekwondo practitioner can hope to gain if he practices it with dedication and perseverance. With the passage of time, however, there have been changes that have not all been for the good, at least in my view. For instance, training sessions nowadays are more focused towards only winning points in competitions and since kicks get most of the points over punches, less attention is paid to the hand techniques. The hands, which were once trained to be powerful weapons, seem to have lost their importance and obviously, this does mean that the martial artist is deprived of a great asset in his arsenal. How far reaching such changes have been can be best illustrated by an incident at a friend’s wedding party some years ago. He was a Taekwondo instructor and so there were many practitioners at the party. I was one of them. I sat with a couple of them; they had represented the country many times. They were good. One of them looked at my hands and referring to my still callused knuckles, commented, “Sir, are those to scare people or what?” I, in return, looked at his hands. They were as soft and as smooth as a woman’s.
Amar B Shrestha represented Nepal in the 6th World Tae Kwon Do Championships in Denmark and is also author of The Dark Marmaid'.