Chicago's Hidden Gem

Chicago is home to a hidden jewel, of sorts, a precious stone whose spiritual, intellectual and teachings of the art of personal defense date back decades to that period when Japan savaged the Korean Peninsula during the Second World War. And that jewel of the Windy City?

The Hapkido, Taekwondo & Self-Defense Schools located on Chicago’s near northwest side and its Grandmaster and founder, Kwang Seek Hyun. An émigré to the U.S. from South Korea in 1969, Grandmaster Hyun and his black belt teachers have provided hapkido instruction to no less than 40,000 students—youngsters and adults—who have included 6,000 Cook County Sheriffs police, suburban police, Cook County Department of Corrections officers and other government employees since Hyun opened his school at 2743 N. Western Ave. nearly a half century ago. 

So what exactly is hapkido? To begin with, according to the grandmaster, hapkido, a Korean term, is a combination of three words: hap, which means “harmony or coordination”; ki. which translates into “life force;” and do, which connotes “power.” In short, hapkido is the “Art of coordinated power,” he says.

“It is a martial art that is oriented to a street fighting style defensive tactic rather than competitive sports- oriented training that is used in tournaments,” he says. “Hapkido techniques include strikes, punches, kicks, joint locks, chokes, pressure points, throws and pins as well as grappling and ground fighting.” And, he adds, “Hapkido was used as the basis for teaching hand-to-hand combat to Green Berets in Viet Nam.”

Grandmaster Hyun, through hapkido, views the human anatomy and its vulnerabilities in terms of “inside” and “outside.” Inside points of the body are weak. Outside points are strong. An internal injury can be much more serious than an external injury, he points out. 

He teaches more than self-defense, however. Woven through his daily instruction on self-defense are notions about life in general, such as life’s sanctity. His classes mix exercise, technique, theory, personal discipline and general advice on living, learning and even what foods to eat. To him, the beauty of music and the strength of hapkido bring a certain internal harmony to oneself, an ability to concentrate and relax, the yin and the yang.

During classes, he regularly reverts to two favorite mantras: one for his adult students, a second for his young students, those boys and girls ages five to ten years old.

For the young students, he says, “We lecture them on the five elements they must always strive to live by: And those five things are discipline, focus, following directions, confidence and respect. Our martial arts program will provide the child with the tools to overcome challenges in life. Using praise and positive feedback, our instructors encourage students and motivate them to do their best.”

“For the adults, our instructors consistently remind them of the importance and critical significance in life of conducting themselves with humility, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, and sincerity.”

Steven Gertler, a lawyer with offices just north of the Loop, has been attending the school for over three decades. He and the Grand Master have become close friends over the years, dining together every Monday night at a favorite Korean restaurant. And Steven, who is currently ranked a master, pitches in frequently as an instructor. He explains how he was drawn to GM Hyun’s school way back in 1982, one year after he had graduated from law school. 

“There were several well-known popular schools in Chicago at the time to choose from. I visited several of them and the moment I stepped foot into the Hapkido School at Diversey and Western and sat down with GM Hyun, I know right away that he was the teacher I was looking for. 

“Hapkido appealed to me in its complexity of combining all aspects of fighting, and it’s focus upon teaching practical and effective ways to defend oneself on the street. There were no “katas,” or forms to practice, no sparing or performing at tournaments. Just hard (but very fun!) training learning how to fall, roll, kick, strike, grapple, restrain or even break bones or severely injure or incapacitate an attacker, if necessary. What also drew me to hapkido was the beauty in the flow of its movements. With over 4000 ‘techniques’ in hapkido, I knew that this was an art that I could learn and practice my entire life. 

At the other end of the student spectrum are individuals like Lauren Peterson, a recent enrollee in Hyun’s school. Laura is 22-years-old, a graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in computer engineering and currently lives in Hinsdale. Three times a week she jumps in her car and drives the thirty plus miles to the GM’s school on North Western Avenue. Her objective: To get a black belt, an achievement which she says could take three years.

“I genuinely enjoy the classes. They are more real. When I enter the classroom, I feel more confident, like this is the right thing to do. Behind hapkido is the art of coordinated energy. And, I like the tradition. Every class begins with a bow to the GM, a salute to the flag.” 

During his career, Kwang and his school have been the recipient of many honors and letters of appreciation for outstanding instruction. The American Tae Kwon Do Federation and the National Martial Arts Research Foundation named Hyun’s Hapkido School as “one of the top schools in the U.S.”  Martial Arts World Magazine called his school the “best of Chicago” in self-defense and athletic instruction. 

Esquire Magazine asserted that 

Gm Kwang “believes in the classical tradition, that mental and physical training must be balanced to create a balanced individual.” And the Chicago Reader wrote that “Kwang Seek Hyun is part physical education instructor, part medicine man, part philosopher and unsurpassed teacher.”

Or, as Kwang puts it, quoting an ancient far eastern proverb, “A small pot of water boils faster than a large pot, but the small pot cools off more quickly, too. We like to think of ourselves as the large pot, which is why we are the most experienced martial art school in the United States.”

While his martial arts studio has remained in the same location for over nearly a half century, Mr. Hyun asserts that certain changes have coursed through martial arts instruction programs in recent years. Perhaps the biggest change? The fact that today’s classes are more diverse than when he opened his school. Today, there are more students from Spanish and African-American backgrounds. Moreover, he acknowledges, martial arts in the 21st century have lost some of the attraction that graced the industry in the 1960s, for example, when Hollywood was pumping out seemingly endless movies centered on jujitsu and the like. 

Among Grandmaster Hyun’s proudest achievements? He holds the rank of 10th Dan—hapkido’s highest rank symbolized by a black belt wrapped around his waist—that was awarded to him by the Korea Kido Association. Grandmaster Hyun is one of only a handful of individuals in the entire world who can make such a claim.

The GM graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in music and to this day, he occasionally breaks out in song in his Chicago studio, sounding much like a polished baritone. The music degree and his inclination to break into song notwithstanding, upon graduation from Seoul University he served in the Korean Air Force where he taught Martial Arts and self-defense to Korean recruits. In 1969, he and his wife—who have a grown girl and boy—arrived in the U.S. where he took his first job teaching hapkido at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. By 1973, he opened his Western and Diversey Avenue school—at the time a rough-edged neighborhood—which he teaches out of to this day.

“How did I become involved the way I have with hapkido,” Grandmaster Hyun asks rhetorically. “When I was nine years old, my father sent me to martial arts school to reinforce my self-confidence and I never looked back.”

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