The bold text is mine and the questions I asked him while the regular text that is not bold is Simons replies.
Interview with Simon John O`Neill:
Author and man behind the Taegeuk Cipher book and DVDs.
By Ørjan Nilsen
Simon John O`Neill is getting more and more attention in the Taekwondo world and rightly so. He has authored a landmark book on the practical applications of the Taegeuk forms (the only such book in existence dealing with all Taegeuk forms) and recently he launched the Taegeuk Cipher DVDs with updated applications and a lot of new material. I first encountered Simon on the Iain Abernethy internet forum many years ago and I have always been impressed with his work and knowledge as well as his attitude in sharing the information he has come by over the years. He is one of the people who inspires my own writing and sharing of information.
I was fortunate enough to secure the first interview with him after the launch of the Taegeuk Cipher DVDs, and what you are going to read now is the result of a long e-mail conversation that me and Simon shared. I learned a lot from doing this interview and I hope that it will be educational and an inspiration for those who read it. If nothing else you will learn a little more about the man behind the Taegeuk Cipher. So without further ado here it is:
Could you tell us how you got started in the Martial Arts? Did you start out with Taekwondo?
Actually, I didn’t start Tae Kwon Do until I was 20 years old. I got into martial arts as a teenager, as I was a physically insecure kid, and I wanted to overcome my fears and learn to defend myself. I did a bit of Shotokan Karate, but that just seemed to me like a lot of marching up and down punching the air; I didn’t know any better at the time. I then did Judo for a couple of years and got to orange or green belt, I think. I liked that better, but back then I didn’t associate grappling with self-defence, so once again I moved on. When I went off to university I eventually found the Tae Kwon Do club, which looked like just what I wanted – lots of striking and fighting, very dynamic and exciting – so I signed up.
Today’s martial artists have a lot of input from many different sources (magazines, blogs, different instructors, seminars, etc.). Could you mention who you see as your primary teacher when it comes to Taekwondo?
I’ve moved around a lot, so I haven’t had a particular master who I’ve stayed with for my whole career. However, I’ve had several masters who I consider very important in my journey.
Master Dung Le Van of Bristol in the UK was a big influence. He taught a great balance of traditional Kwan style, fluid movement and practical fighting skills. His chief instructors, two really tough Iranian guys called Ali Sharafi and Hussein Mortazavi, gave us the old “hard style” Tae Kwon Do, with lots of physical conditioning and no-pads sparring.
Then I moved to Spain and studied with Master Song Suk-Myung in Gijón. Master Song had a wealth of knowledge: Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, Judo, weapons, Traditional Chinese Medicine … His technique was often quite different from the current Kukkiwon standard, and he included a lot of self-defence work. He was a very strict, traditional master, who would take us to the limit of perseverance and endurance, and we would drill technique endlessly until he was satisfied.
Later on I moved to Vigo and trained with Master Alfonso Guedella. This was also very tough, disciplined training, with a lot of hard sparring and insistence on what was then the Spanish Federation standard.
Finally, over the last 10 years I’ve trained and cooperated with Master Francisco Tilve of Redondela. He polished my technique to conform to the Kukkiwon standard for grading purposes (although I always seem to revert to the older Kwan-influenced technique) and most importantly, encouraged me to follow my own path.
I’ve worked with several other masters over the years, but the ones I’ve mentioned are the ones I trained with for longest and who have been most influential for me.
Did these masters start you on the forms application journey?
No. None of them ever mentioned forms application, except for one time I visited Master Song years after training with him, and commented that I was working on that kind of thing. He gave me an enigmatic little smile and said something like, “It’s good to look deeper into things”, but wouldn’t say any more.
I actually started thinking about forms application quite early on in my Tae Kwon Do journey. Remember I was an adult when I started, so I always kept quite a critical, objective mind, and I always thought there had to be something more to the patterns than the typical explanations. To be honest, I couldn’t understand why everybody else accepted them.
Then little by little, things started to happen that led me to where I am today. The first was seeing a Tai Chi master showing locking and throwing applications to one of his style’s forms ... I thought, “What?!”, and filed that idea away.
Then not long afterwards I saw an interview in a British magazine … I forget which one … with the ITF Taekwon-do Master, Willie Lim. He said that there were all kinds of “soft” techniques hidden in the forms, and there were photos of him using “blocks” as joint locks. I thought, “This is what I’m looking for!”, but I didn’t have the understanding of the material – I mean the body mechanics, the movement – to take it any further myself at that time.
By 1st Dan I was experimenting with “blocks” as attacks to the opponent’s limbs, and a few rudimentary joint locks, but the big “eureka” moment came when I read Iain Abernethy’s “Bunkai Jutsu”. Blocks as strikes! Grab with one hand and hit with the other! Joint locks and throws! So Iain was the catalyst for me, although I think what I do now differs in a number of ways from his approach. After that came several years of research and experimentation that have brought me to where I am now.
So do you really think the Masters who composed the patterns had those more sophisticated applications in mind?
Yes, I do, and I know I’m in the minority in thinking that. Quite possibly not exactly the same applications that I propose, but applications nevertheless. But the thing is, I don’t think they ever really had any intention of using the patterns as teaching vehicles.
Let me explain that. I think the Karate-based arts developed in Korea along different lines to their predecessors. I think the Kwan founders were familiar with the role of forms in the Okinawan and Chinese arts … they had to be. Remember China is right next door, and Korea had its fair share of Chinese masters, especially after the Revolution. And the Okinawan masters who were teaching in Japan in the 1930’s and ’40’s weren’t teaching the same Karate that we see today. You’ve written in great detail about this yourself, Ørjan. Things like the pulling hand or “blocks” as strikes were no secret; quite the opposite, they were just normal. There’s photographic evidence of this.
But when the Kwan founders started teaching in Korea, everybody was doing Judo, so they had their clinching and throwing and groundwork covered … then there was Hapkido or Hapki-Yusul for all the joint locking stuff … so they concentrated on the striking part. However, and I think this is an important point, they felt the need for their art to have forms of some sort … the Japanese have got their kata, all those Chinese styles have forms, so we’ll have to have some too, and we’re going to compose our own original forms … a prestige kind of thing. And I think that, also as a matter of pride, they put a lot of knowledge and work into those forms – all of them, the Chang Hon hyung, the Palgwe and Taegeuk poomse, the KTA Black Belt forms – even though they weren’t going to use them as a primary means to teach fighting. Then the whole internationalisation process took off, with spectacular kicking and breaking as the showpieces, and the patterns became a kind of abstract exercise in body movement, which is quite valid in itself, of course.
Apart from the historical hypotheses, which I could go on all day about, there are just too many sequences that are functionally absurd under the kick-block-punch model, but with a relatively simple paradigm shift suddenly become something else altogether. You know, it’s kind of like listening to a song lyric and having no idea what the singer is talking about, then somebody gives you a crucial bit of information about the social context or what was going on in the songwriter’s personal life at the time, and it suddenly takes on a whole new perspective.
There is an ongoing debate on the role of forms applications in the Taekwondo community these days. Have you met with a lot of opposition to your work? If you have, is it mainly higher-ranked or lower-ranked Taekwondoin, or both?
I can’t say I’ve met with a great deal of opposition. Sure, there’s debate, but well-informed debate is good, and I don’t pay much attention to uninformed debate. In the end people are either interested in my work or they aren’t. I’ve had a few people, both high- and low-ranked black belts, tell me what I do isn’t Tae Kwon Do, but I’ve had just as many senior black belts show interest in it or accept it as an option. I think the key is that I don’t tell anyone that what
they do isn’t Tae Kwon Do, or that what I do is the only real Tae Kwon Do. And I’ve also got a lot of research to back me up, so people tend to respect that.
So, do you think what you do is Tae Kwon Do?
To quote a good friend of mine, “Yes … but no”. It depends how you define Tae Kwon Do. Is it exclusively the Chang Hon style because General Choi came up with the name and the first original patterns? Is it the current official Kukki style? Or is it a broad term to refer to the mainly Shorin-based, mainly striking-oriented arts that grew up in Korea starting in 1944? Obviously I favour this last definition.
So in that sense, I do consider what I do to be Tae Kwon Do. But I consider it to be one aspect of Tae Kwon Do, or one way of approaching a particular part of the body of knowledge referred to as Tae Kwon Do.
However, I generally don’t use the name Tae Kwon Do, because what I do doesn’t fit with the public perception of Tae Kwon Do in the 21st Century. I don’t do sport sparring. I don’t do high kicks. I hardly do any kicks at all, in fact. So I don’t use the name when I’m talking to the general public about what I do, because I don’t want them to get the wrong idea and feel disappointed or deceived when I don’t teach them the spectacular stuff.
Have you founded a new style, then?
Categorically no. I’ve developed a methodology that isolates a particular focus of Tae Kwon Do, that is equally applicable to similar styles, and that applies a very specific pedagogical model to the study of a martial art for self-defence and self-improvement. I’m working within a tradition, with existing material from that tradition. I just present it in a different way.
I saw on your website www.palkwon.com where you sell the new Taegeuk Cipher DVDs that you are part of something called the Pal Kwon Association. Would you care to tell us a little about it?
The Pal Kwon Association or Asociación Pal Kwon is the name of my club. It is an independent club and is not affiliated to any of the big federations. That’s the fundamental idea: to be able to operate completely independently and apolitically, to offer a number of services to our members and to cooperate with whoever we want to, including the mainstream Tae Kwon Do organisations and individual clubs. We don’t teach conventional Tae Kwon Do and we don’t award grades that have any kind of transferability outside our own little organisation.
You’ll notice we offer something called “Pal Kwon Ho Sin Sul”. That’s just the name we use, for the sake of convenience, for the specialised Tae Kwon Do-based syllabus we teach. As the name suggests, it’s self-defence based on 8 main hand movements or “fists”, all of which are present in Tae Kwon Do, and we use a Korean name to acknowledge our background.
I see you prefer Sewo Jireugi (standing fist punch) instead of the more traditional horizontal fist punch that we usually see. Can you tell us why you prefer this punch and where you got this preference from?
I actually prefer palm heel strikes to punches, but yes, my punch is more “vertical” than the standard punch. This is a result of experimentation and also the natural consequence of the distance I work at. Personally I don’t think the final position of the punch shown in the patterns is there to tell us to punch with our elbow fully extended and a horizontal fist, because if you make contact just then, you’ve already spent all the punch’s potential, plus your elbow will suffer. If you perform the same punch at close range – I mean less than an arm’s length – then you will make contact with your arm only about 70% extended, your elbow pointing downwards and only slightly outwards and your fist almost vertical. It is structurally more solid, transmits more power and makes contact when the hand is closer to its peak acceleration. That’s how it works for me, anyway.
Who is your greatest inspiration in the martial arts and why?
Well, you know, I have a great belief in the individual, and I also have a big problem with the whole “martial arts master as a spiritual and moral guide” cult mentality. So I’d have to say that my greatest inspiration are those low-profile, both-feet-on-the-ground masters who work hard to make their clients’ lives better in terms of personal safety, health, enjoyment, self-confidence and strength of character, and don’t consider themselves to be anything special. And there are a lot of them. And I use the word “client” rather than “pupil” or “disciple” on purpose.
You have published a landmark book on the Taegeuk forms, you have just launched an impressive DVD series on them as well … Do you have any plans for what to do next?
I don’t have plans to release more books or DVDs in the immediate future, although you never know. It would be interesting to look into the Palgwe forms or the KTA Black Belt forms, but I have plenty of material to work with already and I have other priorities. For the time being I’d like to continue to consolidate my syllabus and do more work directly with people rather than via books or DVDs. The thing is, pattern application is actually only a secondary aspect of what I teach, so now that I’ve finally done the Taegeuk DVDs, which has been a project that I’ve had in mind for a long time, I’d like to get back to emphasising the core material, the nuts-and-bolts stuff.
Do you have any tips for the people who are undoubtedly wondering how to introduce more sophisticated applications into a regular Taekwondo syllabus?
Yes, sure, for Tae Kwon Do people and for anyone whose art uses forms that aren’t explicitly integrated into the combative contents of the style. Here’s what you can do. Stand in front of a partner, but make sure you’re at less than an arm’s length away. Now slowly perform a sequence from your forms. Don’t think “technique”, think “movement”. Now observe what happens. What direction is your force going in? How and where do your arms make contact?
What are your legs doing? Are they crashing into your opponent’s legs, obstructing him, moving to the outside or the inside, turning? When you do this for all the sequences in the form, can you see a common theme?
How do you practice applications in training?
I don’t really approach them explicitly as applications. I mean, I never say “Today we’re going to look at applications from Taegeuk Oh Jang”. I have a core syllabus which is based on 8 main hand strikes, limb control and defence, all bound together by a particular strategy, and we spend most of our time on that, with all kinds of exercises and drills, a lot of work on power generation, posture, mobility, etc. Then little by little I introduce extra techniques drawn from pattern sequences, and maybe at the end I’ll say, “That’s just like this movement from Taegeuk Sam Jang” … or maybe I won’t even mention it. So we train the applications in the same way we train the fundamental stuff: technique, impact work, pair work, sparring.
How do you feel about using “blocks” as blocking techniques and not as strikes or joint locks? Is a block ever “just a block”?
Hmmm, good question. I think the movements that are conventionally called “blocks” certainly can be used as blocks, but I don’t think they are often used as blocks in the patterns. What I mean is that those movements, when you see them in pattern sequences, are probably strikes or components of takedowns or joint locks, not blocks.
But there is a lot more to Tae Kwon Do than just the patterns. I spend most of my class time on what I consider the core syllabus of Tae Kwon Do which is strikes and parries. I think the basic strategy is to avoid the opponent’s attacks with “soft” parries, get in close and strike him. But soft parries are an acquired skill and are not necessarily easy to perform under pressure, especially for a beginner.
However, the typical forearm blocks of Tae Kwon Do are relatively instinctive and easy to use, even if they do mean absorbing more force, and as a stop-gap measure they are very effective if you can’t manage a soft parry. The thing is, if you want to use them as blocks, you only need to use the “end” of the movement. You don’t use the big chambering motion; you use an abbreviated movement from wherever your hands are to wherever you need them to be. The big chamber is for when you use them as a more complex technique like a simultaneous parry and strike, or as a throw.
How do you incorporate as many techniques from the forms as possible into live sparring and still keep it safe enough to participate?
Well, as you can see in the Taegeuk Cipher DVDs, I didn’t include any really brutal applications like neck breaks or eye gouges. I couldn’t ethically justify teaching that. There are some applications that are quite dangerous, obviously, so there are certain things – some throws, neck manipulations, side kicks to the knees, that kind of thing – that I don’t allow in sparring; we just train them separately in a controlled fashion. Also, one of the fundamental hand strikes, a
big inward diagonal knifehand strike to the neck and collarbone area, is too risky for sparring. You have to sacrifice some degree of realism to get the benefits of working under pressure without sending people to hospital.
But most things can be incorporated. The thing is, the forms applications are an ancillary skill set as I mentioned before, so you just introduce them in sparring little by little, like “Today you can use any of these four takedowns if you want”. Of course, we use protective gear: helmets with face masks, MMA gloves, groin guards and sometimes chest protectors.
I think the important thing with sparring is that, for me at least, it’s a means to an end. All too often, it becomes an end in itself, which is fine if you’re training to compete, but not so good if you want to learn to defend yourself. I mean, people get good at the game instead of getting good at reacting to the unknown. It’s a bit like academic exams. I remember when I was a language teacher, there were a lot of students who were good at doing exams and exercises but couldn’t hold a conversation. So I never used to tell them when we were going to have an exam or what would be on it, so they had to develop their overall ability to communicate and improvise.
I think sparring is important for self-defence, and the way to keep it relevant is to make it unpredictable and to change the rules and the format every time so they never know what to expect. That way, students learn to apply their skills and impose their gameplan in the midst of chaos.
Many Dojang today are removing older training forms such as one-step, two-step and three-step sparring from their syllabus. What are your thoughts on this kind of exercises and their place within Taekwondo?
To be honest, I’ve never really seen the value of step sparring in its established form. It’s supposed to be the free application of pattern technique for self-defence, or something like that, right? I think there are better ways of trying out techniques with a partner, learning correct range or whatever. I would like to see a more practical approach to pair work, particularly when step sparring seems to be the main way of approaching self-defence in modern Tae Kwon Do. Really, I consider it to be of very limited value beyond … I don’t know … mid-coloured belt level.
You recently started practising Tai Chi. Have you learned anything there (teaching methods, training methods, techniques, strategy, etc.) that you would apply to your Taekwondo?
Yes, I am now a novice student of the Hunyuan variant of Chen Taijiquan, which is very fighting-oriented. It’s a great complement to my own “external” style, and is very sophisticated in terms of standing grappling: a lot of balance manipulation, joint-locking and throwing. At the moment I’m trying to keep the two styles separate in my head, as they have very different strategies and mechanics. Tae Kwon Do – my Tae Kwon Do, at least – is more about aggressively moving into the opponent’s space and attacking mainly with linear strikes, while Taijiquan is more about allowing him to “fall” into your space, rotating, then taking his balance
and doing all kinds of nasty things to him. That’s my impression, anyway. As I say, I think Taijiquan complements Tae Kwon Do in a similar way that Hapkido does, in that circular, defensive sense, although its body mechanics are quite different from what I know of Hapkido.
Is the teaching methodology very different between Taekwondo and Tai Chi? Do you think that the Tai Chi method of teaching would fit a forms application-based Taekwondo better than today’s mainstream teaching model?
The methodology is very different from conventional Tae Kwon Do methodology. Firstly, it’s a lot more relaxed, with none of that pseudo-military, disciplinarian atmosphere. I suppose there’s an assumption that if you’re there it’s because you’re going to take it seriously. Plus, although it is physically demanding, it’s not in the same way as in Tae Kwon Do where you sometimes need somebody shouting at you to do those last few repetitions or put that extra effort in.
Secondly, there is a much greater emphasis on mechanics and structure rather than on specific techniques. So whereas in Tae Kwon Do the usual method is to copy a technique or a “shape” and try to make it look more like the ideal, to use it to hit things with, to get more and more power into it, in Taijiquan you spend more time developing a way of moving that acts as an “engine” that you use to power whatever techniques you decide to apply.
As I say, I’m not really in a position to make a detailed evaluation yet, but I think both approaches have their advantages.
How do you feel about belt tests and how they are most often held these days?
Haha, well that’s one of the things I like about the style of Taijiquan that I study. They don’t have any belt tests until their equivalent of 1st degree black belt. So you just get a kind of informal continuous evaluation, and when you and your teacher think you’re ready, and after a minimum amount of time, you go and grade.
But I imagine you want to know my opinion of Tae Kwon Do belt tests, right? Well, in Spain at least I think they are generally pretty good. They are quite exhaustive, with a lot of attention to good technique and “spirit” or “attitude”, they cover a lot of aspects and especially at black belt level they are very strict.
The one big change I’d like to see would be a bigger emphasis on hand technique as opposed to kicking, and a more realistic approach to self-defence than the current step sparring model and the whole wrist grabs thing. I’d like to see a substantial self-defence syllabus, and for that to be an important part of testing, especially at Dan level.
Apart from that, I’m not a big fan of pushing students to grade every 3 months or whatever, or using gradings as an excuse to charge extra fees, but that’s not something I’ve seen much myself. Maybe it’s more common in other parts of the world.
Thank you so much for your time doing this interview and for your work promoting the practical side of the KTA/Kukkiwon forms.
My pleasure. Thank you, Ørjan.