Do not lose control even when provoked. If you do, you might hit out and that could be very dangerous. You could end up killing somebody,” declared Taekwondo Instructor 3rd Dan Black Belt Daniel Russ Gurung. He was addressing his class of 30 students after the exercises were over for the day. Plainly, his words were directed towards those in the first row, which included me. “And then, you might be taken to jail for the next 20 years of your life,” he added, determined to make his message loud and clear.
Instructor Daniel was not kidding. He spoke with the utmost seriousness. I guess he must have thought it his responsibility to do so. The reason for his grave words now was because five of us had become Red Belts, perhaps the most dangerous phase in a Taekwondo student’s life. It is the time when a student is at the peak of his powers. It is the time when his punches are lethal, his kicks devastating, his ridge hand strikes deadly, and his blocks as paralyzing as his attacks. At the Red Belt stage, the student is well armored, both physically and mentally – an armor fortified further by the confidence built up through long hours of strenuous and disciplined exercises over the past three years. His every step now will be directed with single minded devotion towards the fulfillment of the deep and yearning desire to earn the ultimate accolade – the coveted Black Belt.
Art First, Sport Later
There are tens of thousands of Black Belts around the world today as there must be hundreds in Nepal, but just like in any other sphere of activity, not all are equal. A Black Belt usually entitles you to be an instructor, and that is what many become; but again, not all instructors are equal. I was fortunate to have had a man like Daniel Russ Gurung as my teacher for three years. He epitomized the true martial artist. The true martial artist? Well, yes – as opposed to those who practice the art not as an art but more as a sport. Now one may well ask, what has this got to do with making Tae Kwon Do into less of an art? It is simple: once this Korean martial art became an Olympic sport some years ago (in 2000) it began to be viewed as a means to enhance a countries’ prestige by winning more medals. Thus, gradually, the art began to be taught less as an art form and as more of a sporting activity, with training methods geared towards scoring valid points and avoiding being hit and thus losing points. One can compare Tae Kwon Do’s passage through time with our schools’ ‘One Point’ program; that is, to enhance a schools’ reputation by the students doing well in the School Leaving Exams. There are many who decry that education has become less wholesome and more exam-oriented. Similarly, Taekwondo, a martial art, has now become less of an exotic art and more of a potential medal-winning sport.
Thank God, when I was practicing Taekwondo, it wasn’t an Olympic sport yet. As we understood it then, it was an art that had to be learned through sincere dedication and deep desire. Many might not know about Daniel Russ Gurung, but almost everybody knows about Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Lee. They too are true martial artists, although of martial forms other than Taekwondo. Bruce Lee was the uncontested idol of almost every practicing martial artist then. His moves were sure and deadly and the camera assisted in making them still more dramatic. His film, Enter the Dragon was an inspirational film for people like us. But, even without Bruce Lee and his dramatics, for me personally, being taught by a man like Daniel Russ Gurung was enough motivation. And the rigid discipline he endowed us with through his consistent exhortations in class, was the foundation on which our own strength was built upon. Discipline that was manifested not only in our external behavior but inside of ourselves as well. Finding the balance between our strength and our limitations was an ongoing struggle, and discipline allowed us to accept what could not be done and pushed us to explore the limits of our abilities.
A Way of life
“Always be humble. Humility is a prerogative of the strong,” Instructor Daniel used to lecture us often. “The more powerful you become, the humbler you must be.” Such constant discourses served to embed deep into our minds the great virtue of humility; and, certainly, there have been many, many times in life’s journey when it has served me well. Discipline, humility, self restraint, and chivalrous behavior were the bywords we lived by. Camaraderie was a given amongst us. Confidence was evident in the way we walked, the way we behaved and the way we conducted ourselves generally. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in those days, we who practiced Tae Kwon Do with utmost dedication had an aura around us. This aura was a blessing of the art we practiced, and an art that actually became a way of life with us.
“Taekwondo is not something that you can learn just by attending two hour classes each day,” Instructor Daniel used to say. “Taekwondo must be a way of life with you and on your minds every minute and every second of your life. Taekwondo must be there with you when you eat, when you study, when you sleep. Be always aware that you are first and foremost a practitioner of Taekwondo before anything else.” And, yes, Taekwondo did pervade every aspect of our lives, and its high values made us sharper in mind and surer in our actions thus helping us to be better at whatever we were doing at the moment. “Wherever and whenever you meet another Taekwondo practitioner, remember that the junior must bow first and the senior must reciprocate similarly,” he used to tell us. “It is not the person you are showing respect to by bowing. You are demonstrating respect to Taekwondo by doing so.” Such was our art, such were our principles.
Our classes always began and ended with a few minutes of meditation. We knelt with our opens palms lying face down on our thighs. There would be absolute silence as each of us tried to empty our minds of the events of the day so as to leave a blank slate for what was to be learned in the next two hours. Then we got up as one and at the instructor’s command began our warm up exercises in as perfect synchronization as possible. At first it is easy going, more of a limbering and stretching routine, not much of strenuous effort required. This was followed by the exercises for the legs and was more arduous. In Korean, tae means “to strike or break with foot”; kwon means “to strike or break with fist”; and do means “way” or “method”. Actually, Taekwondo is renowned for its kicking techniques – front kicks, side kicks, roundhouse kicks, spinning kicks, hammer kicks, flying kicks, spinning flying kicks, etc. Therefore, leg exercises, which include stretching, are pretty detailed and exhausting. “You must be able to eat using your feet, and wipe your behind with them,” Instructor Daniel was fond of joking.
Kicking Away To Glory
Our kicking routines were the toughest of all and required immense determination and perseverance. Kicking well did not mean only power, it meant speed and balance in equal measure. In time, I found myself so comfortable with my legs that neither high heels nor slippery surfaces could hamper me from delivering high kicks again and again, swiftly and with great power. Perfect balance was what gave me the confidence to deliver even high spinning kicks repeatedly on any surface and any time I wished to. To attain the needed flexibility to execute high kicks, our training included a lot of stretching work outs. It must be mentioned here that not everyone is endowed with similar suppleness; thus, some can stretch out their legs perfectly in a horizontal line, while others who have difficulty even achieving a respectable level of horizontality while stretching. In any case, the regular work outs, mostly done in pairs so that one could push down and assist in the stretching, always succeeds in making even those less flexible, more agile. Besides flexibility, in Taekwondo every attacking move is accomplished as speedily as possible so that one is ready to repeat the attack immediately. Every attacking move is done with the knowledge that one is also vulnerable to a counterattack during the move, so the emphasis is on great speed. Our flying and flying spinning kicks were the highlights of our demonstrations, which we gave regularly to acquaint the public with our art. We flew high over eight stooped bodies and smashed two inch planks with the edge of our feet, sometimes spinning our bodies spectacularly in mid flight.
Taekwondo kicks are devastating. “Remember that your legs are at much heavier than your arms and longer too,” our instructor used to say. “So, if you can gain control over them, and learn to use them as taught, you are at a very great advantage over any opponent. You can strike from afar and the opponent has less capacity to retaliate.” At the Sixth World Taekwondo Championships in Denmark I watched a fight between a Korean and a Saudi Arabian. The latter was all fire and brimstone, leaping to and fro delivering exploratory kicks constantly. The Korean, with his hooded eyes and expressionless face, moved back and aside effortlessly without throwing a single kick. Then, wham!, as the Saudi was delivering maybe his tenth kick, a roundhouse to the face, the Korean executed a spinning kick with such grace and precision that it left us breathless. The Saudi hit the ground like a felled log. The heel of the Korean had smashed into his left eye socket with great velocity. His eye turned black and blue and began to swell even as he was being taken away on a stretcher, out cold. It was a perfect example of the perfect Taekwondo kick – a lethal combination of speed, power, precision and balance.