See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

Most body & mind-themed sports incorporate lying on a mat, doing minimal exercise and focussing on your breathing. After an entire day sitting in front of a computer screen, this stillness would just make me more stressed. Looking for a more active way to relax, we ended up in Portimão. Enjoy the Algarve kicks ass, so it’s logical that this month we try taekwondo. 

Flying kicks, roundhouse kicks and spinning kicks – taekwondo is full of cool combat moves like Chuck Norris, Jean Claude van Damme and Tony Jaa show in their action movies. But anyone who just wants to learn to fight should move on and look for another sport. Because first of all taekwondo is a self-defence system. And before any kicking starts, all students line up, bow to their teacher and repeat the taekwondo philosophy (which loosely translates as ‘I’ll try to understand the principles of taekwondo and follow the instructions of the teachers and more advanced students. I’ll use those principles in my daily life, wisely and with justice. I’ll dedicate all my strength and willpower to my physical and spiritual improvement and will lead other less-advanced students on this path. I’ll honour my parents, family and my country, and will aim to contribute to a better and fairer society’). Respect plays a huge role in this martial art, with students shaking hands after each fight and 7-years-old children already learning to acknowledge each other with a bow.

“I’m trying to create better humans in this society,” taekwondo teacher Tiago Carito (36) says as he observes the kids doing their warming-up, shouting encouragement when necessary. “It’s important to have values, to be fair and to respect each other. If children are taught this in class from an early age, the aim is that they’ll also live by these principles later on in their lives.” The Portuguese Tiago is originally from Lisbon, where, inspired by martial arts movies, he started practising taekwondo in 1998. In 2004, he moved down to the Algarve for work (no, not teaching taekwondo, that’s his ‘after work programme’) and set up his own school, Clube Taekwondo Portimão, which currently has 70 students. Since 2007, some of them started participating in competitions; the results are proudly displayed in a trophy cabinet which is almost too small for all the prizes. Part of the students exercise only to keep fit, but others are extremely competitive and focused, like the black-belted Rafaela Araújo who trains six times a week in order to participate in the 2020 Olympics.

The Olympics? Yes, taekwondo became an official Olympic Sport at the Summer Games in Sydney (Australia) in 2000. Although Korea’s national sport has an ancient background, it’s really spread around in the last few decades. At the moment it’s the most practised martial art in the world. “It’s a very complete martial art,” says Tiago. He explains: “There’s of course the physical part, but there’s also an equally important mental part, which includes things like perseverance, courtesy, integrity and self-control. In taekwondo, you can’t just focus on your body, the mind is essential too; it’s impossible to see them separated.” When asking Tiago for a final tip before the lesson starts, expecting advice on posture or power, he surprises me by saying that the most important thing is to be open-minded, something I’d associate more with yoga, tai chi or pilates. Tiago warns me that I shouldn’t expect to master taekwondo in the next 1.5 hours. “Anyone can achieve taekwondo, but only by way of setting small objectives, like getting to green belt, and working towards them step by step. It’s about constantly improving yourself and not giving up.”

“For me, it’s a philosophy, a way of life,” he continues. “The path from white to black belt is a long self-journey on which you start as a blank page and slowly develop physical aspects and characteristics. When you get to black belt, we say: ‘now you start to learn taekwondo’.” Depending on the hours of training you put in, getting to this level usually takes between four and five years. And it includes a whole lot of sweat. The warming up is an intensive one: movements to get your muscles loose are quickly followed by some leg, knee and toe lifts that have me gasping for air within minutes. No kicking in sight yet and I’m already knackered.

Training is mostly done in pairs. Students alternate holding a pad with delivering a series of kicks to it. Faces are focused and impact sounds can be heard in every corner of the gym. But more striking than the blows is the feeling of solidarity. All pupils – who vary in age from 11 to well in their fifties, with a male-female ratio of almost 50-50- help each other out, whether it’s tightening the body protector or counting the repetitions out loud. Kicks are done with both legs and even involve a backwards spinning one which includes turning 180˚before delivering your kick. I put my best effort in and before I know it, my partner falls down to the ground, groaning. Not because of my overwhelming power, but because I’ve misjudged the height of my kick. Instead of against his body protector, it landed in his testicles… Oops. The rest of the class is laughing and telling me not to worry while I look for a hole in the ground to disappear. Although at the next exercise, which involves sweeping your feet over the other’s head, my training partner is quick to duck away in case I’m too low again, he doesn’t request a new companion. Phew.

Luckily he also doesn’t aim for revenge when we start a series of two minutes fights. The aim is to score points by touching different points on the opponent’s body protector with your feet. I’m feeling a bit worried when coming across the 17-years-old Rafaela, who, Tiago tells me with a grin, goes by the nickname of ‘Monster’ in competitions. No need to worry at all. Instead of a crazy fighting machine, Rafaela is extremely nice, as are all the students, giving a newbie an opportunity to also score some points and not hesitating to point out a better way of placing your foot. Still, in one of the next fights I accidentally get an elbow on my foot which produces a big blue egg. Standard taekwondo injury I’m told.

Instead of taking a break, I continue. Because although my body feels tired, it’s a good type of tiredness, knowing you’ve done an active workout body (instead of just watching TV the entire evening). Tiago’s wife Renée Bulterman (31), also a black belt, agrees. “After taekwondo lessons I feel better and stronger. I just feel good, like I can take on the world. It becomes a part of your life.” Tiago, who admits that his group of students feel like family to him, quotes the Latin phrase ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) to illustrate the effect taekwondo has on him. And indeed, making my way back home, hobbling around on one and a half foot, I’m surprised to notice that my head is clear of stress. I’d almost describe my mood as ‘zen’ and stay relaxed for the next few days. When the bruises on my foot have faded and the muscle ache has passed, too much time behind the computer makes the stress levels rise again. When’s the next taekwondo class?


When to go?

When the classes are on. The current timetable is:
adults: Monday, Wednesday & Friday, 19.30-21.00h,
children aged 8-11: Monday & Wednesday, 18.30-19.30h,
children aged 5-7: Wednesday & Friday, 18.30-19.30h.

Take some clothes that are suitable for doing exercise, like jogging trousers and a T-shirt, and bring a bottle of water. No need to wear shoes: taekwondo is done barefoot.

Want to go? Make sure to contact Tiago beforehand. All contact details can be found on the websitewww.tkdportimao.com.


For whom?

Active people who like exercise where you use both body and mind. Also: anyone who wants to learn how to do an impressive high kick. Martial art enthusiasts will love it.

Taekwondo is for anyone from the age of 5 to 99. There’s no need to have any previous experience or a certain fitness level. Be prepared for muscle ache afterwards though.

Adult classes last 1.5 hours; Tiago speaks Portuguese and English.


See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine May 2016

Posted in This month we try.