Feature: Focused lessons from the master of Tang Soo Do in St Albans

Julia Meakins fights Monique

Julia Meakins fights Monique - Credit: Archant

WHETHER you are looking to improve your fitness levels, self-defence skills or you grew up idolising the Karate Kid, you can find what you’re after with the ancient practice of martial arts.

The Monday night Tang Soo Do class

The Monday night Tang Soo Do class - Credit: Archant

Luckily for the district there’s about six different types to choose from at St Albans Westminster Lodge – including a lesser-known Korean form called Tang Soo Do.

Not only that, they have a teacher of the highest order leading the classes who has remarkably been there close to 40 years. Grand Master Kang Uk Lee is a living legend in Tang Soo Do circles. The 10th Dan black belt first learned the art in Seoul, South Korea, where he taught military police and instructed at the Korean Air Force Academy.

He became an instructor in England in 1974 after one of his students opened a training centre here.

The 77-year-old now teaches Tang Soo Do every Monday and Saturday alongside former student and Sixth Dan Master Julia Meakins at the Holywell Hill sports centre.

I recently went to a lesson to experience the appeal of the fighting style, which sits somewhere between Kung Fu and Karate. Master Julia took me through each of the different moves and forms step-by-step and I learnt the basics of blocking and punching.

As it was the first time I had been exposed to the sport, I obviously wasn’t progressing at a particularly fast pace, which made me question how powerful the moves could be. I also couldn’t believe such a fluid, elegant art form could pack a punch when it really mattered.

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Thinking nothing of it I relayed this to Julia. This was probably the worst mistake I made during my session.

She got me to stand opposite her: “I’m going to kick you in the stomach.” I’m not one to say no to things, so I reluctantly swallowed my reservations about being booted in the belly and tried to stay still.

Obviously she didn’t give me a full whack but I was definitely knocked off my feet. She explained they train to kick with the ball of their foot to maximise impact and power in a fight, which, for me, was the ultimate appeal of learning Tang Soo Do; the knowledge you could defend yourself efficiently should you need to.

A sense of empowerment lingered with me during the session but bizarrely so did a feeling of calm. I found myself completely content, much more than I ever have in typically relaxing exercises such as Pilates or yoga.

Grand Master Lee described the session as a place to forget your problems and switch off: “Whether you’re a rich man, a poor man or an important man it doesn’t matter.”

Discipline is taken very seriously in Tang Soo Do – students aren’t even allowed to drink water during a lesson and leaving to go to the bathroom is frowned upon – which is probably why it’s so easy to get so immersed in the practice; it’s about completely focusing on the moves.

Julia explained that it also helped a lot of young people with low confidence levels as students were forced to hold eye contact while fighting one another.

Watching the aforementioned fights was the highlight of the hour and a half lesson. Half-performance, half-battle, two students would mirror each other with great precision, anticipating when to kick, punch or block.

When my turn to fight with Julia came up, I have to admit I was a teeny bit scared. She had just kicked me in the stomach after all.

The experience was much harder than I anticipated; maintaining eye contact for that long was strange and it was incredibly taxing remembering which move to perform to block your opponent’s attempts to make contact with your body.

Although I hadn’t turned into a pro after the lesson, it’s a credit to Grand Master Lee and Master Julia’s teaching skills how much I did learn in such a short space of time.

I also may not have looked the part when I had my first taste of Tang Soo Do (everyone was in crisp white starched uniforms while I was in Abercrombie and Fitch joggers and a Topshop T-shirt), but I certainly felt the part and gained a tiny yet powerful insight into this ancient fighting technique.

For more information on Tang Soo Do at Westminster Lodge visit: http://www.hertsdirect.org/your-community/comvol/sport2y/spcomb3y/tansoodo/11217490 or call 01727 736 080