The Way Of The Hand, Foot And Walking Stick: Taekwondo And Parkinson’s Disease

Tae Kwon Do (The way of the hand and foot)

‘Daly rewarded with Taekwondo Bronze medal’ ‘Third spot for battling Ruislip favourite’ ‘Against all odds, Daly steals TKD bronze’ clamoured the back pages of the morning papers.

Next week, iron your uniform

You don’t recall it? Tsk! Well I’ll just have to refresh your memories then. But first, a bit of etiquette:

“Kyungnet!” At this command, you bow purposefully but deferentially, not too low; from about the height of your solar plexus. Once you have raised your head again, relaxed, but with the limbs firmly under control, you, without shifting your position, step your left foot out 90 degrees to the left: a distance broadly equivalent to one shoulder width, at the same time bending your arms at the elbows (always a good place to do this in my experience) raise your fists to a point just below your chin, outer edges touching, palms facing in. By now your left foot should have completed its shift – if it hasn’t, may I politely suggest that you may be better off with the flower arrangers in the room next door. Thrust your fists (once again, firmly, with strength – but under control, not wildly) out in front of you so that they are just in front of your belt knot. Hold the position, fists about a fist apart, Eyes dead ahead; standing firm yet relaxed.

Good! This is ‘Joon Bi’ or the ‘Ready Stance’

“Charyut!” You are called to attention. Snap to it! Straight and tall, hands and arms following the seams of your trousers. “Kyungnet!” You bow again out of respect for your instructor: who will be your better – if not your elder.

‘Okay, sit down’ The instructor addresses his class, which consists of about 30 WTF (World Taekwondo Federation) students, ages roughly 7 to 13, of which nearly half are girls. The class members are each kitted out in uniforms which go  through a whole spectrum of dirtiness and dishevellment from grubby grey to the crisp, smartest, whitest of whites. I notice that the majority wear a white, white and yellow or yellow belt, while alongside the instructor, standing to attention at the front of the class are a young man wearing a black belt and four older teenagers all of whom wear striped belts: two girls in green and blue and two boys in black and red.

The instructor fixes his gaze on a couple of fidgety lads as the class sit in lines before him:

‘Now, for next week, iron your uniform, so it doesn’t look like you and your mates have slept in it all week. Just don’t answer the phone if it rings while you’re doing it: and…’ he signals another pair: ‘I want to see you two tie your belts yourselves. No! Not together. Each of you, ’round your own waist. Legs crossed if you please … Oi! Legs crossed … Why? Dunno? Anybody want to tell ’em? Well just imagine what one of these big fellers here … C’mon Rob, let’s have you over here a minute’

With the young black belt, he ad libs a short, but impressive fight sequence which finishes with Rob feigning the effects of receiving a powerful kick to the head and fighting to retain his balance .

‘Now just imagine what one of these Black Belts would do to your skinny little legs, sticking out in front of you as he goes trampling all over them, when  he’s sparring. He’d snap ’em like they were bits of sphagetti’

It is a scene repeated, I am sure, in Do Jangs (Training Halls) up and down the country, every Saturday morning; where classes in this increasingly popular Korean martial art are held, and has been so since the sport began to get a foothold in Great Britain in the 1970s, thanks to a small, but dedicated group of enthusiasts. Some of whom, as it happens, had the night before been training in this very room.

But I am totally unaware of any of this.

The Martial Arts

It was a lovely, sunny Saturday morning as I drew into the car park of the community centre which was home to The Brotherhood Taekwondo Foundation all those years ago. In fact, it was so long ago that  David Cameron was no more than an irritating itch on the backside of the Conservative Party, while  Anthony Charles Lynton Blair had yet to be wooed by wannabe-cowboy, George W Bush Jnr, and in so doing cuckold the British electorate over Iraq and Afghanistan. Little did I know it, but I was about to enter a building which for some five years or so was to prove  almost as important to me as my home or place of work, and in so doing, make one of the best decisions of my life.

But, one thing at a time. I am here, instead of  Sainsbury’s because I’ve come with my eldest to take a look at a martial arts class. We felt that at the ripe old age of 12, it was about time he learned how to look after himself. To this end we’d asked around and this club: ‘The Brotherhood’ and one of its instructors in particular, Neil Patterson had come highly recommended

I knew nothing about the Martial Arts, or ‘Marital Arts’ as a student I once taught referred to it on his University application Personal Statement.

No. All I knew was what I’d gleaned from watching ‘Kung Fu’ with David Carradine on TV. Now, that made no sense at all. Even in the most innocuous school playground fight, I reasoned, Carradine would get nothing less than a sound arse – kicking if he were to spend as much time gazing, glassy-eyed into the middle distance, and then fight so painfully slowly.

No. The closest I had come to experiencing the Martial Arts was watching the late, 10th Dan Dai Hanshi Phil Milner and team training  for, and executing  a world record ‘Breaking’ attempt. Demolishing a piano by hand. Literally smashing it to pieces, all of which had to pass through a 9 inch diameter hole. Against the clock. Foolishly, I didn’t regard the spectacle to be of any real significance at the time, and although I always had a secret fascination with the Martial Arts, dismissed them as something which were not for me.

A Black Belt is only a White Belt who never gave up

‘Wassup?’

I am brought back into the training hall with a bump.

‘You’re knackered?  Whaddaya mean you’re knackered?’  The instructor good-naturedly teases his charges.

You ain’t done anything yet …! Who wants a drink?’

‘Me!’ they sing out in unison.

‘Tough! You can have one in 5 minutes. Patterns first – in the groups you were in earlier. Remember you’ve got a grading coming up in 2 week’s time. I want them perfect by then. Practise and practise till you can do them in your sleep. Practise makes …?

‘Perfect’ Almost all of them chime back

‘No, it doesn’t. Practice makes permanent. So make sure you are getting your stances right. Ask if there’s anything you’re not sure about.  Charyut!  Kyungnet! Sijak!’

And off they go, into their groups to work  with the senior belts.  A few minutes later, a couple of them are put through their paces on the floor demonstrating their particular patterns in front of the class. They are reminded, as some despair at ever being good enough to move up the belts:

‘Listen. A Black Belt is only a White Belt who never gave up’

Finally, they get their drink

The instructor takes the opportunity to come over and introduce himself.

Taekwondo in two minutes

The Patterns or Taegeuk, I discovered later are based on a fight scenario and consist of planned sequences of attack and defence against multiple opponents, designed to perfect stances and the techniques of kicking, blocking, punching, turning and so on. Each Taegeuk, has its own attributes. Number One (or ‘Il – Jang’) for example, represents ‘Heaven and Light’ and symbolises creation or the beginning. The floor pattern of steps and stances belonging to each conform to the shapes of the four trigrams on the Korean flag, the Taegeuk, representing the origin of all things is in red and blue, holding the two principles of yin and yang. The whole denotes a universal unity. Amongst other things, advancement to the next belt colour demands mastery of the pattern  for that level; and to reach Black Belt there are eight.

The philosophy of Taekwondo is taught as well.  It has to be if students are to progress, but it is done so in an unobtrusive way such that it is presented as a series of maxims and principles by which students might abide and thus lead  honest and decent lives. The most immediate manifestation of this is in its five tenets: Etiquette, Modesty, Perseverance, Self-Control, Indomitable Spirit. It is mandatory that all students know what these are and what they mean.

Training

My son and I stay to watch the remainder of the class and he is keen to give it a go, so I bring him down and he starts to train the following week. I accompany him to each lesson for the first few weeks; I guess to make sure that he is training safely and happily. I soon realise that this is not an issue at all as the instructors: Master Con and Fatima Halpin, Robin Bell,  Alec Bryan as well as Neil give a high standard of tuition, which allows individual students to learn and progress in what can, sometimes be a busy class. However, I continue to accompany him long after I am satisfied he is settled, because I begin to be fascinated by the whole concept.

One thing that struck me immediately was that the progress students made (If they were prepared to put in the time, and most were) was impressive. In fact, the whole concern was imbued with a ‘culture of success and achievement’. Higher grade students were making the transitions from the coloured belts to the coveted black, and from there, instructing  the lower grades. Meanwhile the junior students were encouraged to accomplish at the regular gradings and prove themselves worthy of the next belt up. In addition, the club was constantly pushing for honours. Competition, in the form of Kireugi (fighting)  Poomsae ( collective term for the Patterns) and challenges against other clubs was a strong element of the club’s work. Students were encouraged to compete and as a result the Brotherhood had a justifiably highly regarded reputation in British WTF Taekwondo circles. Success was expected and celebrated when it came, with award ceremonies built into lessons so that everyone participated.

With this in mind, I recall that at the end of each saturday morning class, Neil presented a trophy every week to the student he thought had worked the hardest and had made most progress. Anyone good enough to be presented with it three times, he said would win it for keeps. On getting changed one morning my lad said:

‘Dad, I’m going to win that’ And he did.

An overwhelming air of inevitability

For my part, as with so many parents (and there were many in whose footsteps I followed and yet more who subsequently followed in mine) with an overwhelming air of inevitability, I soon found myself being inexorably sucked into joining my offspring in the Do Jang. I began to think: Hmmmmm I reckon I could do this, and what a good way of keeping fit!  Suddenly, I had a Do Bok (uniform) ‘Oh there’s no going back now!’ remarked a fellow, but more experienced late starter at seeing this; and with the addition of a Te (My painfully white belt)  I was, before I knew it, training three nights a week.

Bloody hard work, with the result that …

And I loved it! It was bloody hard work, don’t get me wrong.  Due to advancing age (I was in my 40s when I took the plunge) and the associated failure of vital body parts (and of course in my case, the onset of Parkinson’s although at the start of my ‘Martial Career’ it remained undiagnosed) I had to work  twice as hard as the young ones. And he was right, my equally creaky colleague:  There was no going back. The drill work and Poomsae, the repetition of moves again and again in the Do Jang till you were doing them in your sleep (basically, the development of  ‘Muscle Memory’) could be tedious at times but is something for which I am eternally grateful, because as a result I now have a stock of warm-ups, exercises, stretches and movements I can call on to help me deal with the ways in which the Parkinson’s affects my body. In the same way that Conductive Education, developed at The Peto Institute in Hungary can sometimes enable people with disablilties to initiate movement by ‘cues’ and ‘prompts’, I employ the principle of  the ‘action/reaction’ force to make reluctant limbs groan into life. Of course none of this works without the drugs too, unfortunately. I am still able  to remember most of the patterns and from time to time, when I’m feeling brave enough, I try a couple.

I really enjoyed the sparring. This was when you used the skills and techniques for what they were intended: fighting. Full contact was always very safely managed. That is not to say that anything less than 100% commitment was expected, but adequate protection and an awareness of the well-being of others were insisted upon whilst any sign of recklessness not tolerated and stamped on straight away. Breaking was great fun, and almost always left me with a sense of achievement and surprisingly, rarely any lasting harm. I was possessed of only modest skills, as I was always aware: especially compared to the awesome physical and mental prowess of some of my instructors and fellow clubmembers. For example, the skill, accuracy and control in the performance of flawless patterns as demonstrated to a hushed hall by Master Con Halpin, Robin Bell’s fluidity of movement, Andrew Yick’s phenomenal breaking power, Wayne Gates’ absolute concentration and economy of style.

Bloody Parkinson’s, with the result that …

For me, it is the general feeling of fitness, strength, well-being and confidence in one’s own physical ability, the friendship and the cameraderie that existed within the club that are the highlights of my time training with The Brotherhood. All things I miss terribly.

My pride and joy, and Yes! They are genuine.

I got my diagnosis three days before taking my Blue Belt grading. The consultant recommended starting drug treatment immediately. However, after realising that starting on Anti-Parkinson medication (though microscopic amounts compared to the industrial quantities I have to take now) would involve sickness and nausea, I held off (although physically I was nowhere near my best) till after the test.

I passed. I’m not sure how.  As far as moving up the belts was concerned, my son and I went neck and neck (although of course no martial art should be just about belts) Most of our training was done together. It’s a great comfort to know that at least for a couple of years he, and to a certain extent his brother, younger by two years and who trained with us for about the last 6 months or so, will have some memories of me as fit and able, going through my paces, equally happy to face up to an experienced Black Belt or a white belt novice.

The First Southern Area Poomsae Championships, Gatwick

And so, masterfully succinct – as you’ve come to expect  from me, that’s the quickly-sketched background, as to why I am here, in my Do bock and (2ndKup) red belt, freezing my nuts off, far too early for it to be respectable; on a Saturday morning  in a sports hall near Gatwick.

I am here as a competitor in the First Southern Area Poomsae Championships, hosted by The Livingwell Club, near Gatwick. And it is busy, with entrants from all areas of the country.

Although I have spectated at both pattern and fighting events, this is my first competition. My day is made virtually complete when, with dismay I realise that my competition category is that of  ‘Veteran’.

And I’m still freezing cold.  Together with Big John, my long-suffering, even-tempered sometime sparring partner, who is also competing in the same category, I mooch around  bit to find out at what time we are expected on the floor, so to speak. Apparently our ‘slot’ is about midday. I do some warming up and begin to run through my patterns. My eldest has a busy day. As a first Kup (Red/Black belt – one away from black) his is one of the most competitive  groups. Unusually I begin to feel quietly confident. This rare state of affairs is thrown into turmoil more than somewhat by the news that they are bringing our category foward. So far forward in fact, that we’re on now!

frantically trying to remember 

While I am frantically trying to remember the drill for entering the competition area, the first competitor, a red belt from Liverpool takes the floor. He knows his stuff. He’s obviously competed a few times before and already looks like a potential winner. My confidence in a podium finish, however is undiminished. Today feels like the day. Then it’s Big John’s turn. John has been training a little longer and more regularly than me. And it shows. Then it’s my turn. Thankfully, I am still in an ‘on’ state (In other words my L – Dopa medication is still working)

Normally, there are three rounds. The first requires performance  of one Poomsae from the first compulsory section. I think I did Koryo, the  first Black Belt pattern. You are marked on Accuracy (Correctness of Poomsae: techniques and basic movements) and Presentation (Skill, speed, strength and power)  The highest 50% in the category go through to round two. Here, contestants choose from the second, more advanced compulsory section. I must have done Keumgang, the second Black Belt pattern, which would have left me, for the third and final round, pattern 8 and one other. Which? I don’t recall. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, it didn’t go to a third round. I remember nothing about performing, except at the end, trying to make sure I finished on the right spot, which in most patterns is the same as your starting point. I also remember the feeling of relief that it was over. It is quite a tall order to perform physical tasks/movements of such complexity and under such intense scrutiny.

It’s true, Dear Reader

A short wait for the scores and Lo and behold! I get into the medals! That’s right! Third place. Joy unbounded! … or Joy  unfounded, I’ not sure which. My son on the other hand has had  a tough and unproductive afternoon. His category went the whole three rounds and started with about 20 competitors. He has cooled down after his last pattern, and is feeling shivery, achy, hungry and generally pissed off. It’s now 5:00pm and we still have to battle the traffic home; so my, some might say, rather unwarranted celebrations are cut short and we head off. On the drive back, my eldest is not in the mood for ‘move by move’ breakdowns of my killer patterns … and promptly falls asleep, only waking up as we pass the White Bear pub in Ruislip. He doesn’t realise it as his ‘cartoon’ sleepy face: two crosses for eyes and an upside down mouth with its tongue hanging out, slowly dissolves and he returns to normal, but all journey long I’ve nevertheless been regaling him with the tale of my day’s  success.

‘One thing’s a bit wierd though Dad, Howcome you only had to do two rounds?’

Perhaps he has been listening after all …

The eagle-eyed among you, I suspect, may have spotted same:

‘Why no third round? Ah. I didn’t explain that did I?’ Of course the reason we weren’t called to do a third round is the same reason I was so confident of a ‘podium place’: ‘There weren’t enough entrants to warrant a third round.’

‘How many, Dad?’

‘Oh, enough to make it a close and exciting competiton’ I offered, unconvincingly.

‘How many?’

‘Three’

‘What!? So all you had to do was turn up, living and breathing to get into the medals? He was livid. ‘And even if you weren’t I suppose you still would have got it posthumously! …’

It’s true, Dear Reader. Three contestants: me, Big John and the Scouser who, as we suspected he would, won it.

The trophy – Life size!

And so ended my competitive Taekwondo career.

And that was it.

I continued training for about a year, but eventually circumstances prevailed. I remember my last training session. I was with my two lads.  Mindful of pacing myself for the whole lesson, I had taken it easy. It was no good. The ‘Offs’ had started to come more regularly and powerfully by then. So much so, that I had to sit out the bulk of the lesson, frozen, unable to move. We left at the end, some degree of movement having returned: sufficient I thought for me to get us home in the car, but it wasn’t to be. About half a mile from the club I had to pull in as I felt that the rigidity which persisted made it unsafe for me to drive. We had to sit ignominiously in the car till a taxi arrived and got us home. I cycled back the following day to collect the car.

And that was it.

I have to say, in all honesty and without wishing to descend at all into sloppy sentimentalism that it was a significant loss. A loss of, as I have indicated so many things: the fitness side of it, the skills, techniques and the learning all the time, the piecing together of one bit of knowledge with another, the way in which certain elements of the training, and in particular events such as gradings hauled you out of your comfort zone, and the shared nature of the experience of all that. The banter, the fun and the friendship. And I think here is where we get to the nitty gritty, for ultimately, the strength I draw from my memories of my time spent training with the Brotherhood as, let’s face it, a decidedly average – if that – Martial Artist, is a result of the warmth and kindness extended to yours truly and my family, by almost everyone involved in the club at whatever level. Now is that the friendship of a particular group of people, bound together by a common interest, or is that the friendship of Taekwondo? I’m still working on that, but I think I know the answer.

At about the same time I stopped training, though thankfully I don’t think the two events are related, the club went through some changes in personnel and training facilities. Neil Patterson, in my humble view, a gifted and resourceful teacher meanwhile had moved to the South Coast, where, knees permitting or – more often than not –  knees not permitting, he continues to instruct. I only mention this in order to point out, without being presumptious that I consider all Brotherhood club members, be they current or former with whom I had contact over the years, friends.

Thank you and goodnight

I would like to end this long-winded epic by, as well wishing the Brotherhood a Happy 30th birthday, saying a big ‘Thank You’ to those people (far too many to mention individually, and if I did I’d be bound to forget someone,) who had the misfortune to have to spar with me, do one step, self defence or watch as I stumbled my way through pattern after pattern or who were generally responsible for giving me a ‘prod’ along the way. Special Thanks go to the following, who I will name  for their willingness to give of their time and expertise, their patience, help, encouragement and inspiration: Neil Patterson, Master Con Halpin, Fatima Halpin, Robin Bell, Brian Robinson, Alec Bryan, Donette Gates-Day, Tracey and Rob Sleight, Rosie Biddlecombe, Kyle Patterson, The Long-Suffering Big John Moran and family and last but by no means least, Master Usman Dildar (I finally wrote it! I may have gone off track from time to time, but I did finally do it!)

To all of you,

당신을 감사하십시오

Links

The Brotherhood Taekwondo Foundation

Titan Taekwondo

Premier Ki Taekwondo

Ickenham Taekwondo

London Taekwondo Academy 

The British Taekwondo Control Board 

World Taekwondo Federation

Postscript

Of course, it has occurred to me since publication of the above, that certain points may have been left open to potential misinterpretation. What you have read, skimmed, through or totally ignored to come straight here is My Own Story. I am not advocating the practice of Taekwondo as a ‘cure’ for Parkinson’s Disease. There is no cure. Nor am I suggesting it allieviates symptoms, or likwise encouraging people with Parkinson’s to take up the sport. In my case, I was lucky enough to ‘get in’ my all-important two formative years before the arrival of my uninvited guest. The point is that I was, and still am able to use some of the skills and techniques I have learned and put them to use or adapt them in such a way as they enable me to keep fairly supple and fit: which is half the battle with Parkinson’s. They may play their part in my ‘Bag of Tricks’, which might for instance, mean steps or moves which allow me to navigate a particularly tricky bit of the house when my walking is not too good.

Parkinson’s has been dubbed ‘The Designer Disease’ for a reason. No two people’s symptoms are alike. What ‘works’ for one person may not for another, as I have painfully found out over the years, while Taekwondo is a Martial Art; It is not meant to be easy.

Should anyone with Parkinson’s, despite all that has been said, wish to take up the sport, I would urge you strongly to discuss it with your GP or Neurologist in the first instance and then with the club you intend to train with. As for choosing a club (and this goes for anyone: able-bodied, young or old) shop around. Visit a few. Sit and watch lessons (If the club is reluctant to, or doesn’t allow this – Strike it from your list.

End of sermon.

© Andy Daly 2011

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18 thoughts on “The Way Of The Hand, Foot And Walking Stick: Taekwondo And Parkinson’s Disease

  1. This is what I call a happy/sad story. Happy because your life has clearly been enriched by your TKD experiences and achievements and sad because you can no longer participate in something you would like to do. However your indomitable spirit shines through loud and clear. No doubt you continue to do martial arts inside your head and the values and lessons you learnt from it will continue to be a source of strength and influence in your life.

  2. Andy, Just want to say what a great read, as you have said there does seem to be something that unites people together who have trained in the martial arts, is it just the blood sweat and tears that we have all experienced. Personally, I think that it more about people who have realised that in life nothing that you truly desire comes easy. Whatever it is I am glad to see your comments on the Brotherhood and wish you and your family well. Keep up the fight!

    • Thanks, Kevin.

      Good to hear from you – and congratulations on your 4th Dan!
      Yes, you are right, if nothing else, the Martial Arts are a way of ‘artificially’ putting hardships in our way, so that (I haven’t checked every form of Martial Art but I’d be willing to bet they all say the same) in conquering these hardships you are better equipped to face life and all it has to throw at you. And I guess, if well-taught, it conditions you, physically, mentally, spiritually – its a whole package.

      I’m very glad you found it a good read: I didn’t want to make it ‘too highbrow’ on the other hand, I wanted to treat the subject seriously; not just comic book slapstick.

      Best wishes,

      Andy

  3. Hi Andy,

    Hope you are well. Its a great page and very informative, some of the contents and pictures reminds me of my time that I used to train at the Ruislip centre together with all brotherhood team. What you do is amazing, all the best and hope to see you some time..

    Best Regards
    Usman

    • Thank you for your comments, Master Usman. I remember with great affection those classes at Deane Park and the intention was to try and recapture that atmosphere as well as saying something about what I think have been the benefits of my training in the light of present circumstances.
      As I said, opening that door and stepping inside with my son was one of the best decisions I ever made; and although brief, I enjoyed my visit to the LTA, too. I think you can tell a good club from the moment you set foot into the Do-Jang.

      Best wishes,

      Andy

  4. Very good read. I can appreciate and understand many of your observations and thoughts. I was diagnosed w/ PD 15 years ago and passed the first degree black belt last fall. I have been invited to test for 2nd in early spring. I find that TKD has helped me keep going and helps me reduce my off time. When you stopped taking regular classes how did that impact your off periods?

    • Goodness me, you’ve done well. I think my PD has been a bit more rapid in its development. As I said I found it increasingly difficult to ‘manage’ or fight the ‘offs’ during classes with the result that I was sitting out more than I participated in. I could have then, and maybe still just about, now cope with a daytime class, but there is nothing available. When I gave up the classes it had an almost immediate effect on my health, and sense of worth/self esteem, but it didn’t impact particularly on the frequency, length or severity of ‘Offs’ necessarily. They came and went pretty much as they did before in a Mid-Morning, Mid-Afternoon, Early – Evening, Post – Evening Meal Apocalypse fashion. I get them more frequently now, especially since coming off The Dopamine Agonist (with no replacement until hopefully DBS!) Nonetheless, I am still thankful for my time in TKD, for as well as good memories and friendship it has given me some weapons with which to do battle with my ‘Univited Guest’ Thanks for the comment

      • Andy:
        Over the past 3 years my class participation has ranged from I get there, sit still for 30 minutes and then go home to having a fully functional 2 hours. I have had the DBS and manage my mends aggressively. Don’t give in to the “Guest”!

  5. That was an amazing read!!!! Those times were great, your right too. Walking into the club is one of the best decisions any of us made, hope to see you soon xxxx

  6. Hi, this is a old post of yours, but I hope you still read the comments. I would like to ask you: Did you again find a way to train in Taekwondo? Do you think it helped you in the last years? I’m 43 years old, and I did Taekwondo some years ago. Now I was diagnosed with PD, too, so I wonder if it is a good idea to return to the sport or if something like tai chi would be the better choice.

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