It all started in March last year. After a hospital stay with a major surgery, my attending professor recommended daily physical activity. The urban jungle in downtown Seoul seemed unsuitable for a morning walk. So, I explored one of the public parks in my immediate neighborhood, Yongsan Family Park. A little oasis, right in the heart of Seoul.
And so it happened that one day, during my walk in the early morning hours, I suddenly heard strange noises. In the middle of the park, I saw a group of elderly people moving in rhythm, making strange sounds. The only words I could decipher by then were yoghurt, yakult. One of the older ladies had noticed me peeking at her and kindly asked me to come closer (which I didn’t understand, of course, since she spoke Korean) and encouraged me to join in. At first, I was a little amused by the activity, because at first, I had the feeling that it was a kind of gymnastics for seniors. But then I recognized that I had been mistaken….
This was the first lesson of my so far about 340 completed lessons. Every morning we meet at Yongsan Family Park at 6 a.m. to practice “Yogurt, Yakult” together. Be it minus eight degrees in winter or a sweltering 25 degrees in summer.
Today is Friday, May 14. On this day, Korea celebrates “teacher’s day“. I take this special day as an opportunity to talk to our two “teachers,” Mrs. Sun-woo Kyong선우경 (83) and Prof. Shin Yungoh 신영오 (79) about this traditional gymnastic.
What is so special about the morning gymnastic that you teach every day?
Sun-woo Kyong: This gymnastics is Gug Hak Kigong do. It is a mixture of Kouksundo (Korean Gi gong), individual elements from Asian martial arts and Chinese Gi gong. Among other things, the exercises activate the internal energy and blood circulation. We always start with breathing exercises for the lower abdomen. Slow body movements (a kind of meditation), dynamic movements and stretching exercises complete the program. Always with the aim of stimulating the internal organs, stimulating blood and energy circulation and strengthening the immune system.
Where does Gug Hak Kigong do has its origin?
Prof. Shin Yungoh: Gug Hak Gi Gong has been practiced for over 1500 years. It dates back to the Silla Dynasty and originated in the Korean mountains. Gug Hak Kigong do is based on the philosophies of Korean Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. For example, there are elements from meditation, which have a positive influence on the physical and mental lifestyle. Principles from acupressure and acupuncture are also incorporated into the exercises to experience harmony in body and mind. There are more than 500 different types of movements that focus on breathing and activating the whole body. However, Gug Hak Kigong do, as well as Kouksundo is only actively practiced by a wider population in recent years.
What is the advantage of practicing Gug Hak Gi Gong regularly?
Sun-woo Kyong: As mentioned above, the training stimulates the entire body. The exercises stimulate the memory, one improves concentration, agility is enhanced, and balance is strengthened. In summary, health, happiness and friendships. But what both teachers strongly recommend is to do the exercises as a daily routine.
At my first meeting, the words Yoghurt-Yakult have stuck in my memory. During a facial gymnastics exercise, you say the words Joghurt-Yakult in quick and short intervals…Since then, I call the group Joghurt-Yakult Group!Daniel Thomas Faller
You both lead this group. How did it all begin?
Sun-woo Kyong: I first got involved with it about 20 years ago. At that time, the Korean government had promoted and launched the Health Movement. I was putting in a lot of hard training at that time. After a short but intensive instruction program, I received my certificate as an official trainer eight years ago.
Prof. Shin Yungoh: In my case, it happened rather by chance: I have been retired for 12 years and regularly attend exercise classes. Then, about five years ago, a friend introduced me to the group at Yongsan Family Park. The participants of the group said that I should do a qualification as a trainer so that I could also coach the group, which I did. Since then, we have both been leading the group at Yongsan Family Park.
Where do you get the motivation and energy to train every day at 6 a.m.?
We get the energy from the training itself. It makes us happy and proud when we are in the group and see how our colleagues participate. That is a great motivation for us.
What does your daily routine look like?
Sun-woo Kyong: My day starts very early in the morning. I get up between three and four o’clock and start my day with a morning walk to Yongsan Family Park, which takes about 30 minutes. After my workout, I then treat myself to breakfast at home. Since I am a very active person, I spend a lot of my time outdoors with friends. Singing and Line Dance are just a few of my great passions. Around 9 p.m. I go to sleep.
Prof. Shin Yungoh: I also start my day very early. After Gug Hak Kigong do training, I go to the University of Medicine every day to give advice and support to students and aspiring doctoral students. Biology and virology have remained my life’s interests even after my retirement.
Do you stick to training with the group in the mornings, or have friendships developed over the years?
Prof. Shin Yungoh: Over time, some close friendships have developed. Some of them also meet outside of morning exercise. On special occasions, we have a picnic in the park after our workout. Whether it is to ring in the rainy season or like today on teacher’s day.
I notice that a lot of older people are active early in the morning. Is there a particular reason for this?
Sun-woo Kyong: The drive for early morning activities is of course individual. We also have some friends who like to sleep longer. The fact that you tend to find fewer young people in the morning is probably because they don’t want to or can’t spend much time exercising before work. However, there are two important reasons that contribute to the fact that for many Koreans, physical activity plays an important role in their lives. One is their character. By nature, Koreans are very energetic and generally very active people. On the other hand, there are very many initiatives by the Ministry of Culture and Sports. They establish and also maintain outdoor fitness equipment in residential housing areas, parks, and many public places. In addition, there are very well-developed bicycle and hiking trails that encourage the people to engage in outdoor activities.
What is your message to our readers in the “western world”?
Prof. Shin Yungoh: We hope we could inspire other people to take their health and well-being into their own hands, including older people. And of course, we would be especially happy if we could motivate one or the other person to try Gug Hak Kigong do themselves. It is very important to us to pass on our knowledge to other interested people. Because nothing is more precious than a healthy body and mind.
Thank you for the interview, all the best for the future and especially for your health.