The Interpretation of the Hyung

Sam Dan Candidate Essay submitted September 30, 2019 to WTSDA Region 4 Ko Dan Ja Board. 

Practicing a kata is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.
~ Gichin Funakoshi, 18th Precept

Tang Soo Do is a martial system rich in culture, tradition, and a history deeper than memory. Officially founded by Hwang Kee in Seoul, Korea, on November 9, 1945,[1] Tang Soo Do stands steadily in its own niche as a unique system. It draws from Chinese, Japanese, and, of course, Korean influences—seeking both soft, fluid grace, and a solid, foundational strength. As a martial art, Tang Soo Do was designed from and for survival and warfare. However, even from its mid-twentieth century inception, Tang Soo Do continues to strive as a traditional martial arts system seeking—in addition to self-defense—physical and spiritual health while developing the character and virtue of the practitioner.[2] A key avenue to accomplish this pursuit is in the instruction and training of hyung. From 9th Gup to Chil Dan, Tang Soo Do utilizes twenty-nine,[3] including open-hand and weapons forms, to impart its traditions, culture, strategies, and tactics. Because of the available repertoire of hyung derived from a variety of cultures and perspectives, Tang Soo Do is truly a martial art system well balanced from upper to lower body, from standing to ground, and on any imaginable terrain. The hyungs Tang Soo Do provides us are the requisite textbooks every instructor and student must study, interpret, apply, and teach. The following pedagogical method is a summary of how to do exactly that.

Ultimately, thirteen principles[4] are used to examine, interpret, and apply the information held within the hyungs. These thirteen principles assist the instructor and student in the discovery of more than simply blocking, punching, and kicking in sequence to defend oneself and debilitate an attacker. A greater meta-narrative or strategy exists in each hyung and across the compendium of the twenty-nine hyungs. At the core of each martial system is a strategy in which to overcome an assailant(s), and Tang Soo Do is no exception.[5] The strategy of Tang Soo Do held within its hyungs and its component tactics govern the use of the following principles of interpretation and application. However, tactics and strategy must not be confused. These are not interchangeable terms. Strategy is the goal; strategy is the plan. Strategy answers the “what” questions. What is the end state? What is the desired outcome? Tactics are the expedient means of achieving the strategic goal. Tactics answer the “how” question. How do I stop an assailant from attacking me? How do I move my feet, hips, shoulders, and arms to protect and counter-attack an enemy? “Subtle nuances make the difference between usable martial application and interesting yet ineffectual dance.”[6] Steve Badger observes rightly as he contrasts the differences of strategy versus tactics in poker. Mr. Badger writes,

Strategy is comprehensive planning and conduct for the long-term. Strategy gives us the course of action we take as we attempt to achieve our goals. Tactics are maneuvers we do to carry out strategy. Tactics then only make consistent sense when they are seen as an aspect of strategy, and not an end in themselves — and this explains why the way a lot of players approach the game makes little sense. They make decisions in a vacuum. Many otherwise thoughtful players, when they decide to think and talk about poker strategy, end up focusing and thrashing around various tactical ideas. They end up missing the forest for the trees.[7]

In much the same way, the Tang Soo Do practitioner learns a few combinations and a handful of body movements finding these tactics effective on most opponents. The practitioner begins to believe she has mastered the techniques. However, if an opponent adjusts the attack-line and the practitioner has a limited set of tactical techniques, then she will typically fail in her self-defense.

It is in understanding the strategy behind the tactics and techniques that allows the martial artist to creatively apply and adjust a tactic within the given context to accomplish the strategic goal, which may only be to escape the dangerous area. The Tang Soo Do student needs time to contemplate on the set of hyungs she has at her disposal to discover why the hyung requires the body to move in such a way, the purpose for a particular movement or strike, and then an interpretation of how to dynamically apply that movement or a group of movements from the hyung in an ever-changing context. The gup student, typically, is not concerned with this depth of understanding within the hyung.

In another martial arts association, first through third dan are considered to be novices in the art. Those students have learned enough foundational information to be a capable martial artist but are only just discovering the depth and breadth of understanding contained within their forms. Although the World Tang Soo Do Association (WTSDA) uses different terms, this concept parallels the development of Yu Dan Ja. It is an exciting and creative time of discovery, yet this time of development is also frustrating—having to relearn techniques, make slight muscle-chain adjustments, or re-contextualizing a series of movements for newly discovered applications. Still, without the foundational knowledge, such discoveries would remain undiscovered mysteries. The thirteen principles used to discover the importance, purpose, and interpretation of a hyung exist to serve as a plan to its understanding. The US Army teaches leaders at echelon that all missions are accomplished in four steps: plan, prepare, execute, assess.[8] In a WTSDA context, the instructor should use the following thirteen principles as a plan and method of discovery and understanding. The instructor prepares himself through experimentation and drills learning to apply the textbook of the hyung while in a controlled setting. Execution happens in the real-life defense of person or property and to a lesser degree in a sparring situation (the author admits a great deal of overlap between preparation of drill and the execution of sparring). The fourth step, assessment, happens concurrently in the phases of plan, prepare, and execute. Assessing the strategy, tactical techniques, and the ever-changing environment allows the Tang Soo Do practitioner to respond dynamically and creatively to accomplish the arts strategy. The fundamental strategy for combat within Tang Soo Do is to close the distance with economy of movement, imbalance the opponent’s center of gravity while stabilizing your own, and apply physiological damage or control to incapacitate an assailant.[9] Sun Tzu’s writings in The Art of War can be summarized as “It does not take sharp eyes to see the sun and the moon, nor does it take sharp ears to hear the thunderclap. Wisdom is not obvious. You must see the subtle and notice the hidden to be victorious.”[10] What the WTSDA requires of its Yu Dan Ja is not easy, although it is necessary to pass on its traditions and culture as each one is seeking mastery of the art.


  1. There is more than one proper interpretation of any movement.

“Do” in Tang Soo Do means “way or art.” Tang Soo Do is an art of body movement and mechanics. It is organic. The actual combat application derived from the hyung transcends the artificial construction of the form as a training tool. It becomes error to say there is only one sound application of a specific tactic found in a hyung. To limit the practitioner to a single application for a single movement within the hyung limits the growth of the student just as much as it limits the art itself. The practitioner is free to be creative with elements of the hyung, and creativity finds its fullness within a community of martial artists because of the the variety of physical characteristics, body types, and mental and emotional approaches to combat. What works well for one person (i.e. the 215-pound semi-pro male athlete) may not work well for another student attempting to apply the interpretation in the same way (i.e. the 125-pound female teenager). On the other hand, the serendipitous discovery of a new interpretation and application might work even better than what was developed individually. This first principle requires an open mind.

  1. Every technique should be able to end the fight immediately.

Technique is made up of three parts: timing, distance, and target. The loss of any one of these parts is the loss of tactical and strategic advantage—the loss of the art in application. Every movement in a hyung should be able to cause serious bodily harm to an assailant in the minimal time necessary to execute the technique including “blocks.”[12] In real life self-defense and combat, the practitioner does not have time to feel out his opponent. Hyungs “were developed before the advent of modern medicine, which cures injuries that would have been fatal a century ago. …the ancient masters designed every offensive technique and most defensive ones to immediately end the fight.”[13] This is why the WTSDA requires an attitude and character with a “serious approach,”  the willingness to repeatedly “practice basic techniques all the time,” and to “learn thoroughly the theory and philosophy” behind the technique all while humbly guarding against becoming “overly ambitious.”[14] the practitioner must never forget Tang Soo Do is an art of martial (appropriate to war) application.

  1. Strike to disrupt; disrupt to strike.

In a fight, the attacker is rarely going to stand in place like a punching bag or leave his arm dangling in mid-air to allow the practitioner unopposed application of his martial prowess. The martial artist needs to strike to disrupt the opponent’s balance and center of gravity or disrupt the balance to deliver a solid strike. In his life’s work, The Book of Five Rings, Miyamoto Musashi said, “whether fighting an enemy armed or unarmed, keep him on the defensive. Chase the enemy with your body and your spirit. This is excellent strategy. …By constantly creating difficulties for the enemy, you will force him to deal with more than one thing, giving you the advantage.” The Yu Dan Ja must develop the ability to simultaneously attack the feet, ankles, knees, head, wrists and/or elbows just to disrupt the opponent so as to strike the vital core of the body. To accomplish this principle, the practitioner has a necessity to understand how the component parts of the hyung work and how they might be combined simultaneously and in sequence. Practicing a hyung one hundred times in order to perform the shape of it is insufficient to gain the depth of understanding this principle and the previous one requires.

The first three principles work in inseparable tandem. In John Kedrowski’s work, The Lost Art of Tang Soo Do, he espouses a few essential basics an instructor should use in helping a student bring these first three principles together.[15] First, every sequence has two parts: the defense and the attack. As a student advances within the hyung, he understands what he is attacking, what he is defending, and how the counter-attack is being applied. This is the most obvious recognition; the harder of the two is imagining the invisible opponent’s initial attack, but without a clear picture of the context in the mind’s eye of the student all that remains is an “ineffectual dance.” Second, every movement has an application. Every push or pull of a body limb, the shifting of weight, the angle of the attack and counter-attack, and the placement of one part of the body on another part are all consequential clues to interpreting purpose from the hyung. Thirdly, the interpreter must be aware of the 360º angle. It might be assumed that the three sequenced high-blocks from Pyung Ahn Cho Dan are meant to be applied in a straight line, and this could be true if the rising arm is a strike. However, it is equally true the three high-blocks would turn and counter attacks from multiple directions ending with a hip-throw as indicated in the 270º turning low-block. The practitioner who keeps a multidirectional awareness is a more capable interpreter of the hyung. This leads to Kedrowski’s next assumption. Every two to five movements (sometimes overlapping) should end in a superior position placing the practitioner in control of the situation. Tang Soo Do is not a dueling art. Life protection for real violence is a potential outcome of Tang Soo Do. This is the reason for a serious approach and a thorough understanding of the strategy within the hyung.

The following principles refine and clarify the three primary principles above.

  1. Nerve strikes are extra credit.

Although dim mak has a place in Tang Soo Do, it is beyond the scope of this writing. Suffice it to say, understanding the vital points for nerve strikes is extremely useful; they do not work on everyone. The effectiveness of a nerve strike depends greatly on the mental condition and health of an individual. The Tang Soo Do practitioner should never rely solely on a nerve strike attack against a determined opponent, but rather consider them extra credit in combination with some other soft or hard tissue attack.

  1. Work with the adrenaline rush, not against it.

The human body responds to all types of stress in a variety of ways. This is also known as the  “fight or flight” response triggering a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. The heart rate increases moving the hormones and a greater volume of oxygen throughout the body, breathing becomes more rapid and possibly deeper, and muscles tense with potential energy ready to be converted into kinetic energy. These changes, originating in the amygdala and hypothalamus, happen well in advance of awareness. The design of the nervous system is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus begin working even before the eyes have had a chance to fully process what is happening. This is why people, before they think about what they are doing, are able to rapidly move out of a dangerous path of approach or exert atypical strength for a short period of time.[16] The same effects are also happening to the opponents, and both will suffer from reduced fine motor skills. Therefore, applications need to be straightforward and simple to execute while incapacitating the opponent. The more complicated the application is the more the practitioner must drill and practice.

  1. Techniques must work at full speed and power.

The practice of the hyung is to achieve complete mastery of all body movement. Real violence and self defense are another matter; they are messy, fast, sloppy and brutal thus working with the adrenaline rush. The goal of body movement mastery make real violence far more manageable enabling the practitioner to exert all possible power to end the aggression quickly while not allowing perfection in the moment to become the enemy of good enough.

  1. Techniques must work on an unwilling “partner.”

Although the hyungs anticipate a predictable and anatomically sound attack, as do the WTSDA one-steps, real violence is not choreographed and becomes unpredictable. The strategy of both opponents is to win, so it should not be surprising for both to become creative in application and “break” the rules of an orderly interpretation. A technique must work on the unwilling partner. To practice this, practitioners should drill the hyungs interpretation and application in a dynamic free-sparring environment[17]where your partner is unaware of the sequence of defense. Each sparring partner is to enter the contest with three to four applications in mind and attempt to apply them at random and as the context of the match allows. This is how the Tang Soo Do student practices basic techniques regularly and constantly.

  1. Deception is not real.

Within the hyungs, and arguably within most other martial systems’ forms, deception is not a tactical principle encompassed in the strategy. The hyungs were developed for individuals to defend themselves when an assailant attacks. A practitioner should never depend on deception in the midst of real violence. The deception exists before the physical confrontation knowing the martial artist has the ability to incapacitate the opponent yet de-escalates the interaction to avoid the fight altogether. In other words, if you are not there, you cannot get hit. Violence never happens in a vacuum. Each combatant has had a role in the escalation to real violence. If the battle has become unavoidable, move to the next principle.

  1. Cross the T to escape.

“Crossing the T” is a nautical warfare term[18] describing two ships that have become perpendicular allowing the broadside of one ship with its cannon battery to fire upon the unprotected bow or stern of the other vessel. This concept seamlessly translates to the Tang Soo Do practitioner adjusting and moving to a more advantageous and less defensible attack line. When forced to fight, the practitioner is constantly moving, striking, and moving again. Ideally, by the time an opponent reacts to a strike, the practitioner has moved and is striking again. Efficiency and practicality are the hallmarks of this tactic.

  1. Stances are not just for hyung.

Any built structure needs a firm foundation, or else when storms and wind blow through, the structure will fall. A building must have solid, immovable contact with solid ground. The hyungs teach the practitioner what foundation, or stance, is needed for a particular technique or series. In his seventeenth precept, Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate-do, said, “beginners must master low stance and posture, natural body positions are for the advanced.” Funakoshi is not suggesting stances are unnecessary for the advanced practitioner, rather the advanced practitioner has practiced the stances so much they have become the natural stance. In Tang Soo Do, this assimilation is called moo shim.[19] Stances are used to imbalance and manipulate the opponent’s center of gravity while securing your own. Understanding the reason and purpose of stances is essential to understanding the hyung and its tactical and strategic applications. In so doing, the practitioner maintains a firm foundation at all times – ready and prepared to respond at the first hint of adrenaline rush.

  1. Don’t forget to breathe.

Breathing is essential for life; no surprise there. For all types of athletes, correct breathing is essential for maximum efficiency of body mechanics. Muscles need oxygen to work properly. The runner learns to breathe with the rhythm of her steps. She maintains a steady and methodical breathing pattern. So does the swimmer, but the martial artist uses his body differently. Sudden explosive power is necessary and quickly followed by slow deliberate movement to control a situation. Because of the wide variety of arhythmic body movements, the martial artist learns to breathe in different ways. The Tang Soo Do practitioner uses a short quick breath often combined with a yell, grunt, or kiap. The kiap accomplishes multiple tasks. It helps to focus the attack and counter-attack. When hit, the practitioner can yell to dispel the painful impact—it is the warrior’s cry. The use of the short quick breath also constricts the abdomen firming the core of the body, which allows the kinetic energy generated in the legs to transfer more easily to the upper extremities. The practitioner who simply punches without a proper kiap and without constricting the abdomen is only punching with the shoulder and arm. The practitioner who breathes correctly, tightening the abdomen, and produces the natural kiap will more quickly learn how to use the legs (i.e. the stances) and connection to the ground to strengthen both a strike with the upper body as well as strikes with the legs. Slow deliberate breathing is also required when transitioning from one stance to another and when applying pressure for a joint lock, a throw, or a clinch. A slow intentional deep breath can also prepare the body and the mind for the explosive action about to occur. Hyungs are an essential tool in teaching the student how to breathe in different ways in concert with controlled predictable body movement. The astute instructor assists the student in making this connection between the hyungs and the dynamic application of tactics and techniques learned from the hyungs.

  1. Use both hands.

Both hands are used simultaneously through the hyung in bilateral balance. A push and pull concept is often described to generate power and maximize body mechanics allowing the center of gravity to remain stable while the extremities move in orbit. This is true whether the practitioner is applying an offensive or defensive technique. Remember Kedrowski’s assumption that every two to five movements should place the practitioner in a superior position. Additionally, don’t forget to pay attention to the hand that has pulled back to the ready position. That hand likely has something in it like an arm, leg, sleeve, or lapel. Sensei Victor Smith, 6th degree practitioner of Isshin Ryu karate, asserts, “the hand returning to chamber after a block simply slides down the arm to grab it and yank backwards, or locks an arm in place.” Recognizing the ready-hand’s role when learning to interpret and apply the hyung begins to open innumerable applications. The practitioner begins to see the depth of what is actually contained in the hyung. Moreover, this principle to use both hands exhorts the student to learn the techniques from the hyung on the typical right side as well as the left side creating a balanced Tang Soo Do practitioner.

  1. A lock, hold, or throw is not a primary fighting technique.

Iain Abernethy, author of Bunkai Jutsu, wrote, “In my dojo we use the phrase ‘blow before throw,’ to remind us of the importance of striking and weakening the opponent before throwing.”[20] Abernethy goes on to describe the throw after the hit is only necessary if the strike did not incapacitate the opponent. In other words, the throw is a finishing technique… if necessary. Therefore, maintaining Kedrowski’s basic assumption of a two to five move series, a lock, hold, or throw (LHT), cannot be the first technique. Even practitioners of grappling arts, like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or Judo, cannot simply walk up and apply a lock, hold, or throw on an unwilling opponent (principle 7). Disruption is a key task (principle 3) to successfully apply any LHT technique. It is far safer to incapacitate the opponent with an initial strike or combination and only apply the body-to-body contact required for a LHT when further control is required.

These thirteen principles are used to examine, interpret, and apply the information held within the hyungs. Through these principles, the instructor and student are assisted in the discovery of a greater meta-narrative existent in each hyung and across the collection of the twenty-nine hyungs of the WTSDA to discover the core strategy used to overcome an assailant(s) through identifying the importance, purpose, and interpretation of the hyung.

[1] Korean Martial Arts Tang Soo Do Black Belt Manuel. World Tang Soo Do Association; Burlington, North Carolina, 2015. p 18.

[2] ibid. p 26.

[3] ibid. p 95.

[4] Kane, Lawrence A. and Wilder, Kris. The Way of Kata: A Comprehensive Guide to Deciphering Martial Applications. YMAA Publication Center; Boston, Massachusetts, 2005. p 67-68.

[5] Many martial art styles have strategic and tactical elements in common with each other because there are only a finite number of ways the human body can move as well as a limited set of vital points where the body may be broken.

[6] Kane and Wilder, p 11.

[7] Badger, Steve. “Poker Strategy vs. Poker Tactics…aren’t the same.”, accessed September 19, 2019.

[8] ADRP 5-0, Headquarters Department of the Army; Washington DC, May 17, 2012. p 1-2.

[9]   Kane and Wilder, p 46.

[10] Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Summary of several passages.

[11] Kane and Wilder, Chapter 3. p 67-105.

[12] Blocking to simply receive a blow from an opponent in Tang Soo Do does not exist. If the defender only raises his arms as a shield so as not to be hit in the face, he has been hit in the arms. That’s not a block. A Tang Soo Do block counters an attack, and therefore becomes a counter-attack. Blocks in Tang Soo Do are strikes, dodges, and pushes against a rapidly moving target with the goal of disabling the target.

[13] Kane and Wilder. p 103.

[14] WTSDA Dan Manual. p 27.

[15] Kedrowski, John. The Lost Art of Tang Soo Do. Makala Maluhia Media, October 10, 2009. p 177.

[16] For further detail see “Understanding The Stress Response,” Harvard Health Publishing, March 2011; Updated May 1, 2018. Accessed from

[17] The one-steps should be drilled the same way.

[18] Kane and Wilder. p 93.

[19] Moo shim (무심) or empty mind is a state of mind in which one no longer thinks or becomes preoccupied with the act of doing. The action is performed without thought. This is only achieved when the mind and body are united as one unit. This state of mind is achieved after many years of training.

[20] Abernethy, Iain. Bunkai Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata. NETH Publishing; Cockermouth, UK, 2002.

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