Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Mad Rush, Gup Testing, Latest Paper

So much to do, so little time with which to do it. The holidays season is rushing at me like a freight train, now. Full tilt. Lots of shopping left to do, and our out-of-town guests begin arriving next week. I still would like to hang more lights on our house if I can find the time. Plus we're all testing for rank on Saturday (Christine and Trevor are both going for 8th gup/orange belt, Miranda for 6th gup/green belt, and I'll be testing for 5th gup/green belt with one stripe), so there's extra time at the dojang training all week plus we have papers to write.

And this Saturday is pretty well 100% spoken for already. Due to the spread in our ranks, we'll need to be at the dojang for the entire day, with Christine and Trevor participating in the first testing session, Miranda in the second, and me in the third. If we're lucky we'll be out of there by 5:30, after which a bunch of us will be heading down to the Trail of Lights. I'm hopeful that we can wrap up the Trail of Lights early enough for some of us to head back to my place, get the kids to bed at a semi-decent hour, and indulge in some cocktails and hang-out time. With all of the approaching holiday activity this will likely be the last opportunity to just relax with friends and chill out until well into January. Whether "hang time" will be doable remains to be seen -- it all depends on how things run with the my test, and whether we can get people to meet up downtown at a fairly early hour.

And then we've got a Christmas Party at our friends place on Sunday night after which the one-week-til-Christmas countdown really begins. Guest begin to arrive. Last minute shopping gets more and more urgent. And the seemingly endless cycle of cooking and eating begins. Still, all in all I find I'm not getting my usual "Xmas Grinchiness" this year, despite of the usual holiday stress. I mean, sure, I feel a little frustrated with the whole holiday rush and tumble, but mostly the frustration I feel is because I just want to slow down and enjoy the season and time with my family and friends and can't, as opposed to my usual "get the whole mess over with" attitude. It's nice.


As usual, gup testing brings a new paper topic. This one was a challenge -- the sort of topic that initially seems fairly simple, but which I found more and more interesting and complex as I delved into it. Once again I was able to find a way to take the more abstract qualities of the topic and tie them back in with highly specific instances of my own training experiences, which really helped to lock in the concepts of the paper for me. I'm not sure I am thrilled with the actual construction and organization of the essay -- I feel like it could use a few days of simmering followed by a rewrite -- but I'm pleased with the content, and I simply don't have the time to let this thing sit on the back burner.

Overall, I'm happy with it. So, without further ado...

What Does Pyang Ahn Mean, and Why Is It Important?

Pyang Ahn, which means “peaceful confidence,” can be used both as a proper noun when referring to the name of the series of 5 traditional forms which we learn as part of our training, as well as an adjective when referring to qualities we try to develop as a result of our training. While knowledge of the history and origin of the Pyang Ahn forms are of course important for establishing context and understanding of our art, I feel the true importance of pyang ahn lies not so much in the specific steps and movements of these 5 forms but more in the personal development of pyang ahn in ourselves, both as a result of what we’ve learned and as a key to continuing to advance in this art.

“One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.” Maya Angelou

The Pyang Ahn forms were created by Master Itosu, in Okinawa, in 1870. Named the “Pinan” forms in Japanese, Master Itosu created these forms from far longer, more intricate forms (Kong Sang Koon, with some movements likely derived from Bassai and other forms as well) because he felt that the longer forms were too complicated for beginning students to learn effectively. The creation of these forms are considered one of Master Itosu’s chief accomplishments, as his creation of these simplified forms was instrumental in getting karate integrated into the Okinawan public school system.

The Pyang Ahn forms are designed to bring out “peaceful confidence” in the practitioner through study, practice, repetition, and (eventually) understanding. They are associated with the turtle not just because their movements are characterized by directness and forcefulness rather than with speed, but also because the turtle behaves in much the same manner that these forms are designed to inspire in the practitioner: Patient and deliberate in action, calm and at peace in the knowledge that should it encounter danger it is protected by its shell.

“Confidence is courage at ease.” Daniel Maher

The most significant resource we draw upon as we begin to study Tang Soo Do is yong gi, or courage. It takes a lot of courage to step on the mat that very first time, and perhaps even more courage to keep coming back, week after week, in the face of training difficulties, injuries, and steadily increasing challenges. Only by tapping on our reserves of courage can we really push through these initial stages of training.

Much like our bodies change as muscles are exercised day after day, this continual exercise in courage leads to growth and change in our selves. I think that the first outwardly noticeable change can be seen in the gradual development of pyang ahn. Many people refer to the “aura” that martial arts students develop over time – a sort of atmosphere of sureness and focus that people who train in the martial arts begin to carry with them in their day to day activities. I think that this is an excellent example of the development of pyang ahn, a sense of confidence that we develop after repeatedly relying on our own courage to get through the tough times.

I think it is interesting that, once we have learned our gicho forms, the next form we are taught is the first pyang ahn form, Pyang Ahn Cho Dan, and aside from Chil Sung Ee Rho the Pyang Ahn forms dominate our forms development over the next several belt ranks. I think that the content of the Pyang Ahn forms, coupled with our own growing courage as a result of continued training, combine to create the inward sense and outward demonstration of peaceful confidence that we seek.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford

While developing pyang ahn as a personal quality is certainly a worthy goal in and of itself, I think that in the context of learning martial arts it is perhaps better viewed as a stage of personal development that is necessary in order to continue learning and growing in the arts. Simply put, I think that if a student does not begin to develop pyang ahn then they will ultimately be unable to continue in their studies effectively. With pyang ahn, a student can face the increasing demands of their training with confidence and patience, sure that given enough time and practice these difficulties can be transcended. Without pyang ahn, the challenges of more difficult techniques will simply overwhelm the student over time, leading them to eventually give up and leave training rather than face the ongoing frustrations they feel.

While studying Tang Soo Do over the past year I’ve repeatedly encountered periods of self-doubt. Sometimes this was fairly minor – generalized frustration at not being able to get a particular one-step, wrist grab, or form right – while other times it was almost crippling. I recall one night about 3 months into my training, after I began attending advanced classes in order to beef up my number of hours or training each week, when I saw some of the 1st gups and dans performing some techniques that were so far beyond my abilities then (now, even!). The complexity and physical/psychological demands of the more advanced forms and the huge variety of blocks and punches and kicks I'd need to learn was really overwhelming.

Now, this ultimately led to realizing that I was beginning to develop courage and confidence, because while watching the advanced students I felt my resolve to continue training trying to slip away. I saw what some of these folks could do and my stomach just sort of ... fell. I literally had a moment of something like vertigo. And all I could think was:

”I can't imagine being able to do that. Ever.”

And part of me just wanted to stop, there and then. Quit. Give up. It seemed almost absurd that I would ever be able to do any of that stuff. It was a complete failure of confidence on my part. Still, I stuck it out and made it through class. And I went home and stressed out about it, listened to the voice of my own self-doubt telling me to just pack it in and give up, and still returned to class the next day.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

And as I look back now, I realize that that night was my own first glimpse of pyang ahn. The courage and confidence I was beginning to develop as a result of my training gave me the strength to fight back my own self-doubt and stick to things even though they were difficult. Since then, these moments of self-doubt have occurred less and less frequently, and have become less and less intense. I’ve really come to understand that learning this art is a long, uphill journey. And like any journey, it begins with a single step, and all it takes to complete the journey is to follow that first step with as many additional steps as you have to take before reaching the end. Nothing more to it than that. No need to get ahead of myself. Just worry about the next few steps, and know that there’s nothing I can’t learn. It just takes time, and patience.

Early in our training successes come fairly quickly: We get stripes on our belts every month of so and learn lots of new things -- 10 one steps! 10 wrist grabs! 3 forms! Lots of kicks and punches and stances! So many new things! But after we hit 8th gup, the rewards begin to get more spread out. Advancement slows, and more advanced forms and more demanding techniques take more and more time and practice to get “right,” The simpler things we’d learned previously could be picked up in just a class or two, but now we’re learning things that can a week or two (or longer!) of effort and practice before they start feeling correct. Without pyang ahn I think that students are certain to lose momentum and surrender to frustration and self-doubt.

And so I think it’s clear that without pyang ahn we cannot possibly progress in our training. If we don’t develop the confidence to silence our own fears and doubts then it is only a matter of time before the mounting demands of training eventually overwhelm simple things like the enthusiasm and fun of learning new things. But with pyang ahn we are able to take the difficulties we encounter during training in stride, confident that with time and perseverence we can achieve whatever we set our minds to.

Mood: Pleasantly sleepy
Now Playing: Neko Case, "Fox Confessor Brings the Flood"

1 comment:

Thom said...

wow. you made "first chair" in google. Search for Pyang Ahn and you'll see yourself.

Much to talk about, so little time right now. I won't leave Durham until Saturday morning next week for family Christmas.

Ciao bella,
the MonkeyBoy