Monday, 10 January 2011

Hapkido - A Korean Martial Art

Since October 2010, we have been in secret martial arts training somewhere deep in the Gwangju underground. If you have a problem, if no-one else can help and if you can find us, maybe you can hire us, the Hapkido A-Team....

But seriously, for the past 3 - 4 months we have been going to Hapkido classes in Gwangju on weekday nights and have been learning all kinds of skills and finding muscles we'd never even realised we had. And falling over and making fools of ourselves. I had been interested in learning a new skill while we were in Korea and I thought either Taekwondo or Hapkido could be a fun way to meet new people, get a bit of exercise and learn a bit more bout Korean culture. Also, I have a bit of a phobia about falling over. I know that no-one likes falling over and most people will try to avoid it but I positively despise any situation i which my chances of falling over might be increased (icy pavements, narrow mountain paths, ice skating - the horror!). It's not even that I tend to fall over more than most people or anything I just have a real fear of it - maybe I don't trust my own balance. So I figured taking up some random martial art where you will get thrown around and will more than likely spend some time falling over would probably be a good way to get over my terror. Or drive me to the edge of my sanity with fear, one or the other.

I was definitely leaning towards Hapkido rather than Taekwondo as it's fairly easy to do Taekwondo in the UK whereas I'd never heard of Hapkido until I came to Korea so I figured it would be fun to try something we wouldn't easily be able to do back home. Trouble was, I had no idea how to even begin to find a suitable Hapkido club that would be willing to take on two adult foreigners with little to no Korean language skills. In Korea, it is usual to send very young kids to martial arts clubs after school and you often see tiny tots running around outside with their training uniforms on and their coloured belts performing all manner of kicks and punches, usually on each other. Most Korean children will at some point learn Taekwondo and/or Hapkido. The problem with that is that it means that many of the clubs primarily teach children and teenagers rather than adults so on top of the language barrier there's the awkwardness of being the only adult in the class surrounded by highly excitable and lethally trained children. I tried looking around for some classes that catered specifically to foreigners but there weren't any close to our area and the ones that are for foreigners seemed to be more expensive (of course). By chance, I met a fellow waygook (foreigner) in the bank when I was sending some money home and we got chatting. She told me about a hapkido class that she and her husband attended in Gwangju and gave me the directions on where to find it. Rowan wasn't particularly into the idea of doing hapkido at the time but he came with me when I went to the club to find out if I could join and the master and the other guys their pretty much bullied him into coming too. We both got a really good deal for our lessons there. We pay 50,000 won per month, which is nearly half the normal price because we get a discount for being teachers (don;'t ask me why) and we had to pay another 50,000 won at the beginning to get our 도복 (dobok - training uniform). The master was keen for us to start immediately but I managed to convince him that I really wasn't dressed appropriately for hapkido yet but would definitely come back tomorrow and start.

Rowan posing in his dobok in the hapkido gym.

So, before I go any further I should probably explain what hapkido is. Well, hapkido (합기도) is a modern Korean martial art that evolved from jujutsu, a Japanese martial art (though apparently this is not often discussed due to the animosity between Korea and Japan after the Japanese Occupation of Korea). According to good ole Wikipedia, the name hapkido means "the way of coordinating energy", "the way of coordinated power" or "the way of harmony". Hapkido is a form of self defense that has the usual kicks and punches common to most martial arts as well as joint locks and joint manipulation, judo style throws and pressure point strikes. Body positioning and nifty footwork are key as the aim in hapkido is to out maneuver your opponent and get into a position with good leverage rather than to try to fight head on in a strength against strength style. Apparently. it shouldn't matter how big, heavy or strong you are in relation to your opponent, if you know your stuff in hapkido you should be able to beat a larger, stronger opponent by using their weight against them. Hapkido also employs the use of various weapons including swords, nunchaku, canes, sticks and staffs though I haven't used these yet (but other waygooks at our class have so hopefully we will get a go soon).

Our class is presided over by "The Master" (I'm ashamed to admit I don't actually know his real name), an affable Korean chap with a black belt (of course), strangely prehensile feet and a propensity to giving long lectures at the end of class in Korean while we're all sat in a rather uncomfortable kneeling position - not sure what these lectures are about, maybe our lack of discipline or perhaps the evils of Taekwondo, who knows. There are also 2 or 3 other young black belt guys who are assistant instructors and lead the class when the Master is not there. Our routine at hapkido class is generally a bit different each day and focuses on different things from kicks to rolls to practising joint locks and throws. The beginning and end of each class is always the same though and goes something like this:
  • Everyone starts by kneeling in ranks on the floor with the higher belt grades at the front and the lowest ones at the back. The instructor at the front will say some stuff in Korean and we all stand up and call out this little 3 line chant that translates as something like "Right body (바른 몸) right mind (바른 마음) right spirit (바른 정신 ) then we do a little bow and slap our right fist against our left palms and say "hap-ki".
  • We get a bit lost at the next part and just copy everyone else by putting out right hand over the left side of our chests and looking serious. I think everyone else is saying some kind of pledge of allegiance to Korea but I'm not sure as I don't understand what they are saying. Then the class starts and we spend between 10 to 25 mins doing exercises such as push ups, sit ups, jogging, stretches, jumps and the like. How hardcore the exercises are depends on which instructor we get that day and how mean they're feeling. After the exercises are complete, we get on with whatever the main focus of that day's class is.
  • Class always ends with everyone getting back into their ranks kneeling on the floor just as at the beginning. Then the instructor says some stuff in Korea, presumably releasing us from the dojang (training hall) as you're not supposed to leave without permission, we all get up and shout the stuff about having the right body, right mind etc. and thank the instructor and end with the bow and say "hap-ki" again.
Hapkido students kneeling at the beginning of a class. Rowan and I are at the back somewhere as we still have very low level colour belts.

We have to face the front where the instructor stands (the guy in white) and where the Korean flag is displayed.

Often, as part of our warm up exercises, we have to all stand in a circle around the instructor and perform set sequences of moves. It took us quite a whole to learn these as it's quite hard to pick up at the same time as doing it.

One of the young black belt guys demonstrates a jump during the warm up exercise phase.

Rowan doing his least favourite exercises in which you're required to sit back and balance yourself without using your hands while cycling through a sequence of leg movements. These really pull on your stomach muscles and burn like hell.

The main portion of the class is usually devoted to a different set of skills each day. These include learning how to roll, fall, punch, throw and kick correctly. When we first started, neither of us had done anything like a forward roll in years, probably not since school so it was a bit awkward at first getting back into it but doing all the rolls, cartwheels and handsprings on the big floor mat is always pretty fun. Now we are both pretty good at forward and back rolls, and we're getting better with the cartwheels and handsprings though they're pretty tough. Punching and kicking correctly is surprisingly difficult and it's taken me ages to be able to kick accurately. This week I finally mastered the turning kick without falling over so that's an achievement at any rate. Iwas once made to do a load of push ups as punishment for missing the pads too many time when performing kicks so I really wanted to get them down. Learning how to escape from different wrist and arm grips is something else we spend a lot of time on and is also something I really struggle with as it's difficult remembering all the different moves for each pattern. These patterns are integral to belt testing so they're pretty important to remember too. Learning the different throws is quite fun as it means I get to throw Rowan about legitimately!

The older of the young black belt instructors performing a handstand. No, we can't do that yet but one day, maybe.

More acrobatics from one of our instructors. This guy is pretty tall, especially by Korean standards and he always looks very serious while doing hapkido.

The guy in the red belt is amazing at hapkido. He moves in such a graceful way when performing the jumps, kicks, rolls etc. that it looks like he is performing ballet not a martial art.

The black belt and red belt guys can perform some pretty awesome acrobatic tricks. When we first started going to Hapkido though, I could barely watch as it often looked as though they were going to land on their heads!

More crazy jumps.

Red belt guy (I don't know many of the names of the people who attend hapkido class) performing a handspring. Note the straightness of his arms and body. He will flip over and land up on his feet at the end of this trick.

This is me trying to perform the same maneuver - the handspring - and failing to do it correctly as my arms are bent , my body is not straight and I am nit kicking enough as I go round. I'm better at this one now but I still haven't managed to land standing upright at the end yet.

Red belt guy again demonstrating one of the break falls we have to do but doing it from a jump rather than the way I do it - from crouching on the floor so I don't have as far to fall! I reckon if you chucked red belt guy out of a window he would land, cat-like, on all fours, having performed a series of back flips on the way down.

Me in the final position of the same fall - with palms and forearms and toes on the ground.

We also devote a lot of time to learning different patterns of moves including kicks, punches and other defensive movements that are required for us to move to the next belt colour. We started as white belts and passed our tests to become yellow belts back in November. For that test, we had to learn 5 sequences and 3 wrist locks. The rest of the class were to have their tests on Saturday, but seeing as we never go on Saturdays the Master made us do our tests on a Friday in front of the rest of the class which was a bit nerve wracking. It was cool passing our belt grading though and our new yellow belts actually had our names embroidered on them in Korean script with gold thread (or a close facsimile of our names - mine says "Sopeeah" and Rowan's says "Rowon" but it's close enough). As I understand it, there isn't one definitive belt ranking system for Hapkido and the systems can vary from school to school. At our club the belt colours go in this order:
  1. White (lowest)
  2. Yellow
  3. Blue
  4. Blue with a red stripe
  5. Red
  6. Red with a black stripe
  7. Black belt (there are several different degrees of black belt called "Dans")
I think this is a fairly standard ranking system too. We had a test for our blue belts recently but it was too soon for us and we didn't pass but hopefully next time we'll nail it.

Overall, hapkido is pretty good fun and good exercise too. Some days the exercises at the beginning are really heavy going and seem to go on forever until you feel like you're going to die while on other days we do hardly any and I end up wishing we would do more rather than just sitting around watching other people do wrist locks. But usually the balance between exercise and skill building is pretty good and I think we both feel healthier for it (apart from when we injure ourselves in stupid ways!). Also, it's surprising how quickly you can build up physical strength so that the warm up exercises don't seem as bad as they felt at the beginning. One of the drawbacks is that class usually runs from 9pm to 10.15pm so we don't get home to late and it decimates our evenings as we can't do much before we go, we certainly can't drink any booze unless we wanted to break our necks. Also, the language barrier can be difficult sometimes especially when trying to learn new moves but everyone there is friendly and pretty patient so we get there eventually. Also, there is usually at least one kid there who speaks enough English to translate what is being said. The class was quite mixed when we first started, with a good blend of adults and teenagers, Koreans and waygooks. Now, however, most of the adults and the waygooks seem to have stopped coming so Rowan and I are often the only people over the age of 20 and are usually the only foreigners there which is a bit of a shame. A lot of high school and middle school kids (including a couple of Rowan's students) come to the class now and even a kid from elementary school so classes can be pretty noisy as the kids like to mess about.

Even so though, they're still fun and most of the people are really friendly and happy to talk to us and show us how to do things and they generally treat us as the same as each other (the master just beats us a little less!). We even get taken home at the end of the night in the club's minibus, driven at breakneck speed by one of the young black belt guys - an exciting end to an evening's session. The master is really kind and is always giving us random gifts. This week he gave us a huge jar of Korean citrus tea which looks a lot like marmalade and is particularly good to drink when you have a cold. Not sure if we were looking ill or something but very generous of him anyway. He is the proud owner of a smart phone and is forever trying to communicate with us through it as he doesn't speak much English and our grasp of Korean is laughable. He is also very keen that we come to Hapkido every weekday evening and if for some reason we don't show up (maybe we have drinks to go to or a friend coming over or we just fancy an evening off) he questions us closely about it the next day and starts worrying that we have been sick! We end up making excuses like "Friend - birthday" as our Korean is too limited to explain the real reasons and he probably wouldn't get the concept of just wanting to veg out for a night. Still, hapkido tuition 5 times a week at 50k won a month is a proper bargain so I'm not complaining.

The Master in a lighthearted mood, juggling tangerines after class.

The gruesome twosome holding tangerines after class.

The master has told us that if we work hard we should be able to make black belt by the time we leave Korea but, as I stagger away from the floor mat after having whacked myself in the face with my knee while doing some roll, I do wonder if he's being just a little it optimistic!


  1. so are there any other girlies? You two are going to come back scary!

  2. Greetings fellow K-blogger. My blog is newish and I'm looking for people to have link exchanges with. I noticed you have a sidebar for links and I'd be happy to put a link on my sidebar for your blog if you would be interesting in the same.

    Check me out and let me know
    thewaygookeffect [at] gmail [dot] com

  3. Jenny - Yes there are other girls/women there, mainly middle/high school students with incredibly loud, high pitched voices! Not sure if we will come back that scary but I wouldn't challenge us to a forward roll competition - we'll have you on that one!

    The Waygook Effect - Hi fellow K-blogger, thanks for the comment and for stopping by. We've read your blog before and think it's really interesting so we'd be more than happy to link to it from our blog. Happy Korean New Year (nearly)!

  4. Hi,

    I really enjoyed reading this post. Where is the gym? I took the liberty of linking this post at the website i admin for. here is the link hope you don't mind. Feel free to add links to any articles you like about Korea,


  5. Thanks so much for this blog! I've been reading for hours! Your detail is impeccable! I just accepted a position with GEPIK in Gwangju for next month, so I'm feeling more informed having stumbled upon your blog!

  6. HieMCee! Glad you're enjoying the blog! So you're moving to our little Gwangju? That's great news. Do you know what school you'l be working at? If you have any questions or want to meet for a drink or a bite to eat when you get here just let us know. I don't know if you've noticed it yet or not but if you check out the part of the blog called 'Pages' on the left and side of the screen there is a map of Gwangju with a guide to what's around here to do, where to eat, that kind of thing - might be useful. Hope to see you here soon1

  7. Wow, what a great blog you've got!! I just moved to Gwangju teaching english at Jisan Hangil Academy. I'm loving the town but once I get my first paycheck I would love to learn some Hapkido! Also take a look at my blog and let me know if you'd like to share each other's links.

  8. Hi Logan! Glad you like the blog! Hope you're enjoying Gwangju. I've looked at your blog too and it looks great! I've linked to your blog from our one. Unfortunately, I think you live in the other Gwangju down in Jeollanamdo. We live in the much smaller, less known Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province, about an hour from Seoul.

    I'm sure if you want to do a martial art in Korea though it will be easy to find somewhere. I think there are some clubs that cater specifically to foreigners in the bigger cities which might be worth looking into as they will actually speak English although they're probably more expensive than your local club. We just asked around and were introduced to our hapkido club by a fellow English teacher.

  9. Alright I'll certainly keep trying! Thanks for the help and I'm loving the blog y'all are great!

  10. hello sophie, i've been reading your blog... it's quite popular where i am. i am located in gwangju working at kyungan middle school. i think you guys are in japan now but would you by any chance remember where your hapkido dojo is located? i just want to continue my martial arts studies. even if you have an idea of the general area or the name of the place, i can ask my korean friends for help. that being said i'm blogging about my experience traveling. you can check it out if you'd like: it's an artistic approach dealing with my life project: discovering divisions we form and working pass them. or email the info to me at thanks again for the blog!

  11. Hi DionneVictoria

    You're actually working at my old school in Gwangju! Rowan and I are working in different middle schools in Hanam city which is just up the road form Gwangju now so we're still in Korea at the moment.

    I'll send you the details of how to find the Hapkido school by email. They're a friendly bunch but don't speak much English so it can be hard going understanding what you'r supposed to be doing. It's fun though. Interesting reading your blog. It'll be interesting to see how your experiences of the school compare to mine! Hope you're enjoying Gwangju, we sure did!

  12. I live in Gwangju as well and am very interested in taking Haokido. Can you tell me where this gym is?

  13. Your blog is very informative and gracefully your guideline is very good. Thank you.
    Hapki Do and Judo IL