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What are patterns?

A pattern is like a song sung in a foreign language. 

It sounds beautiful, but unless you understand the language, its words are meaningless.


A pattern (also called a form, hyung, tul, poomse, or kata) is a prearranged series of different defensive, counter, and offensive techniques that must be performed in a precise, logical sequence with specific foot movements and stances in imaginary combat against one or several assailants.

The pattern performer must systematically deal with several imaginary opponents who are attacking with various techniques from different directions. The performer begins a pattern by standing at attention, bowing, and then stepping with his or her left foot in a certain direction into a specific stance using a specified technique. Some patterns are performed solidly, some quickly with acrobatics, some gracefully, and some are performed very slowly using great muscle tension. The closest relatives of patterns are shadow boxing, dancing, or a gymnastics floor routine.

"Hyung" (connected moves) is the Korean term for a pattern used by traditional taekwondo organizations. "Kata" is the Japanese term used for a form or pattern. The World Taekwondo organization uses the term "poomse." The International Taekwondo Federation used to use the term "hyung," now they use the term "tul." The Taekwondo America organization uses the English term "pattern." uses the term pattern.

The "founder" of one of the "realistic" martial arts says that patterns are useless. He says that "Learning to dance is not learning to fight." In his opinion, pretending to learn how to fight while dancing is a way for instructors to drag out the time required to advance to the next belt level. Although patterns have been used by great martial arts masters and their students for centuries, this "master" says it is all useless. As others of the same ilk as this master have done in the past, if you do not enjoy doing something or you cannot do something, then criticize it and invent something you can do.

Techniques used in patterns

All patterns consist of a combination of five techniques:
  • Stances
  • Blocks
  • Kicks
  • Punches
  • Strikes

Patterns help develop martial artists

Patterns help martial artists develop:
  • Stronger, faster, and more effective kicks, blocks, and strikes.
  • Stronger and more secure fighting stances and positions.
  • Sparring techniques.
  • Defensive and offensive moves for every self-defense situation.
  • Endurance.
  • Muscles to be harder and stronger.
  • Rhythm and grace of movement.
  • Awareness of oneself and the body.
  • Effective breathing methods.
Patterns mark the progress of student development. As students progress in rank, the patterns they learn increase in complexity and difficulty. Higher ranks need more complex patterns that challenge them to increase their level of discipline and proficiency.

Traditionally, students had to perform a pattern hundreds of times before learning the next one, but in modern schools, this level of proficiency is not usually required. Students of today have short attention spans and lose interest quickly so students in most modern martial art schools learn a new pattern every few months. They tend to know how to perform many patterns, just not how to perform them well.

In the ancient Orient, a law like the law of Hamurabi (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth) was rigorously enforced. If you injured another person, you were punished, even when the injury was caused accidentally. Since modern free-sparring had not yet to be developed, martial arts students who practiced their fighting skills against other persons risked their own safety if they harmed their opponents. Therefore, the development of fighting skills was hindered until the first patterns were developed. Then students were able to fight imaginary opponents with no chance of injuring an opponent.

Through the practice of patterns, students learn to apply various techniques in practical ways and to join the techniques into useful combinations. They improve their sparring skills by developing fluid, smooth, rhythmical, powerful movements. Gichin Funakoshi, the father of shotokan karate, did not teach much sparring, he based his teaching on performing patterns. Funakoshi believed that once you have completely mastered kata, then you may adapt it to kumite (sparring).

Patterns also help students refine their coordination, flexibility, balance, timing, endurance, and breath control, all of which are essential to the proper execution of martial arts techniques. Patterns enable students to practice techniques alone. They allow students to practice techniques against simulated attacks that are difficult to duplicate during class exercises or while sparring. While free-sparring allows students to compare their fighting skills to those of other students, patterns allow students to critically evaluate their own individual techniques in a controlled situation.

Patterns are the link between technique training and actual fighting. Karate master, Richard Kim, always believed that within kata was all he would ever need to know to defend himself.

Just as individual letters form words that are then used to compose sentences that express a thought; individual techniques and movements form patterns that are then used to express the essence of a martial art. Just as students in elementary school first learn to print precisely and then to write in their own personal style, martial art students first learn to perform each movement in a pattern in a specified manner, and then they begin to develop their own personal performance style.

Martial arts competition may be compared to figure skating competition. Martial arts free-sparring is similar to a figure skating freestyle performance. Both are spectacular, very physical, and entertaining. Martial arts pattern performance is similar to the figures performance of figure skating (performance of figures is no longer required in competition) where a skater is judged on how perfectly he or she can skate specific figures on the ice. In both types of competition, everyone does the same movements, movements are precise, mental concentration is paramount, and the competition is relatively boring to watch.

Learning patterns

Patterns must be learned from a qualified instructor. Pattern movements may be learned from a book, but the emphasis and flow of the movements and the mental aspects of a pattern can only be learned from the watchful eye of an experienced instructor.

All patterns have specific movements that must be performed in a specific order and speed, but there is still room for variation. The height, weight, gender, age, etc. of a student affects the performance. These factors also affect how the instructor teaches the pattern to individual students.

Karate has the concept of "shuhari." "Shu" means to copy the techniques and teachings of the instructor as closely as possible. "Ha" refers to the freedom permitted to make the subtle changes that will inevitably occur due to variations in the physiques of different students combined with the students’ own experiences and understanding of the techniques. "Ri" is when the student has mastered the techniques to the point where they are no longer just techniques; they are a part of his or her being.

Some facts about patterns

  • Why 24 patterns? A human’s life may be considered as a day when compared to eternity. A day consists of 24 hours, therefore, General Choi developed 24 patterns. Each to represent each of the 24 hours of one day.\
  • No first attack. There is no first attack in taekwondo, karate, and many other martial arts. The tenets of taekwondo demand that a student of taekwondo never initiates an attack, they only react to an attack. Therefore, most patterns begin with a block.
  • Chunbi hand positions. All patterns start and end with a chunbi (ready position). The position symbolizes various states of readiness. 
  • The basic chunbi (both fists held in front of the belt knot) shows a warrior who is ready to defend him or herself at a moment's notice.
  • Chunbi using high, twin, open hands held in a triangular shape shows a warrior in meditation.
  • Chunbi using low, crossed, open, hands shows a warrior at peace with him or herself. Chunbi using an enclosed fist symbolizes the restrained force of taekwondo. Taekwondo may be a destructive force when unleashed; this is symbolized by the closed fist. However, taekwondo students train to restrain this force and only use it for a just and honorable reason; this is symbolized by the open hand that encloses the fist.

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