To many, the word conjures up images of funky kung fu warriors whooping and yelling. To others, it's a lost dream from childhood, gone the way of fading piano lessons. For a rare few, it's a way of life.
Taekwondo ("teh-kwon-doh" not "tai-kwan-do"), literally translated as "the art of kicking and punching," is a martial art of Korean origin similar to Chinese kung fu and Japanese karate. But the emphasis on kicksstationary, sliding, spinning, and jumpinggives Taekwondo its unique power and has made it the most popular martial art in the world, with thirty to forty million practitioners in more than 120 countries.
There are students who earn their black belts before they learn their long division; who chop through solid brick like wet paper napkins, who can turn an attacker's knees in the other direction, break his ribcage, and smash his nose with three swift kicks, and yet exhibit an inner peace envied by every New Age guru.
And then there are the casual students who make it to class from time to time, who struggle along with their yellow, green, blue, and red beltsmaybe dropping out of the picture, maybe sticking through ittreating Taekwondo as a passing hobby or fad.
I guess I'm somewhere in between.
I started in eighth grade, my only previous experience having been the Ninja Turtle movie. I earned my black belt in my junior year of high school and came to college a bit burned out, wanting to try new things like modeling or perhaps professional skydiving. But a year of dorm food, late nights, and broken promises of, "I'll work out and run in my free time," (yeah, right!) made me realize what Taekwondo had meant to me. So in the fall of 1999, I helped launch the Harvard World Taekwondo Federation Club with the dedication of six fellow black belt instructors and the guidance of Master Peter Lee, a 5th degree black belt. In less than a year, the HWTF has grown into a full Harvard club sport boasting forty members who compete in, train, and teach the World Taekwondo Federation (the international authority based in Seoul, South Korea) style of Taekwondo. We've done everything from performing for Korean adoptees at a regional Korean culture camp, to conferring new belts on our members, to winning the Fifteenth Annual Yale Taekwondo Invitational, besting our collegiate contenders by a one hundred point margin.
Yet despite the collective triumphs, personally it has been a surprisingly trying year. Starting and helping run the club has meant physical exhaustion, the sacrifice of free time, late nights, and missed chemistry lectures (sorry Mom!). It's meant neglected meals and roommate bonding time, not living up to personal and emotional goals, feeling as if I've lost close friends, or at the very least, the intimacy I might have maintained and/or achieved had I not been in practice. I must honestly confess there are days I imagine what life would have been like had I not continued with Taekwondo.
So why do it? I can't imagine my life any other way.
Taekwondo is more than a brutish form of fighting or some eclectic art form; it's become a way of life for me. I cherish the feeling of pushing myself to the limitsstretching myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I've often compared Taekwondo jung-shin (Korean for spirit) to being a Jedi of Star Wars lore, much to the chagrin of Master Lee. The true martial artist is not solely concerned about their ability to fight; fighting is for animals. It is to be physically awesome, to be able to defend themselves with a graceful and ancient tradition (that also looks mighty impressive!), and to truly exhibit the quiet confidence and security that come not just from a wicked spinning heel kick, but from a sound mind, heart, and soul that have been refined over the years and tempered to the sharpest point of human excellence. The reason we learn and teach and take joy is because Taekwondo truly brings beauty and peace to one's life; this is what gets me excited, and this is what I strive to bring to the dojang (training area or gym) and even the sparring ring. And learning this has made it all worthwhile.
Jaehoon Shim, junior,
The Beverly Hills Martial Arts Center
United States Taekwondo Union
West Side Taekwondo
U.S. Taekwondo Center
Specific information for each state can be found at the official web site of the United States Taekwondo Union.