THRIVE ‌ Martial Arts 

From Capoeira to Krav Maga, Charleston's dojos are full of dedicated practitioners

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Fifteen hundred years ago in southern India, a Buddhist monk, the third son of a king, sat by his dying master and accepted his final command. The young man, Bodhidharma, was to travel to China, where his master had a vision that the principles of Buddhism were in decline. He obeyed, reaching the Shaolin Temple in China's Honan province around 520 AD.

He found the monks in a ragged condition physically and mentally, many too weak to care for themselves. They spent the days meditating, but had no means of exercise.

Bodhidharma retreated to a nearby cave where he deliberated for nine years over how to cure them, finally emerging with 18 flowing "movements" that emulated fighting tactics, thus allowing the monks to attain enlightenment while preserving their health.

Over the centuries, the Shaolin Temple faced many attacks. The movements, or "forms," evolved into effective combat methods, and the monks were revered for their ability to defend themselves. Good ideas spread quickly, and soon after, 8-year-olds in Mt. Pleasant were breaking boards.

The word "martial" implies war, and each martial art is based around a set of movements designed for fighting. While some styles, like Tai Chi, are practiced primarily for the health and spiritual benefits, focusing on the fluid "art," others are generally learned for their practical applications, like Jiu-Jitsu. The styles are distinct, but there are shared benefits. Devoting yourself to studying a martial art is guaranteed to make you stronger, increase your stamina, and better your overall health. Many people claim it has changed their life.

Most studios in town offer children's classes and present an opportunity to instill values and self-discipline that they'll actually enjoy. At a recent karate class, local artist Steven Jordan observed, "There's no greater gift you can give your child than to get them involved in the martial arts. It teaches confidence, focus, and concentration. Problem teenagers ought to be put in a karate boot camp."

To compile this not-comprehensive list, City Paper staff writer Stratton Lawrence joined classes at seven different schools in the area. Hundreds of blows, kicks, and choke holds later, here's a primer on the Charleston scene. So the next time a bully tries to steal your lunch money, you just remind him: "I know Kung Fu." Who doesn't want a black belt for a friend?

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Krav Maga
Defending Israel

In the 1930s, Imi Lichtenfeld was a young Jewish man living in Bratislava, capital of present day Slovakia, when the fascist and Nazi movements began to spread. As thugs increasingly terrorized his neighborhood, he trained the local police force in a "best of the best" system of street fighting that he developed using jiu-jitsu, karate, and common sense. Finally forced to flee, Lichtenfeld was recruited by the forming nation of Israel to teach his "no-holds-barred approach" to defense. Today, every Israeli youth learns Krav Maga, and the practice is quickly spreading to America.

Matt Robinson teaches Krav Maga at the Jewish Community Center in West Ashley three times a week to men and women of all ages and fitness levels. Class begins with cardiovascular warm-ups – jogging, jumping jacks, push-ups – then moves on to punches and kicks. Emphasis is placed on using the whole body to deliver blows for maximum power.

Krav Maga's stand-up style of fighting simulates real life situations, and oftentimes the class moves outside to practice moves in between cars or in a park. "We work off of natural body instincts," Robinson says. I paired off with a man twice my size, but quickly learned that with proper body movement, even a punch from a twig-arm like myself can be potent.

We practiced bringing a person's body forward to destabilize, then delivering repeated knees to the chest and face. Even with a pad, my abs trembled for two days after 10 minutes of blows. To develop a reflex, you have to practice the situation, and it's not always comfortable. By the end of class, I was literally choking a student as hard as I possibly could so he could practice "flicking" my arms away to escape, then I did the same as he iron-gripped my own throat, while Robinson off to the side, growled, "You're a raging pit bull."

Krav Maga's roots are in art, but it's more about taking care of business. "I can teach a person in one night to save your life, where in traditional martial arts that can take years," says Robinson. "A lot of guys hate me, because I break it down and make it easy. But you'll be prepared when something happens."

Jewish Community Center
West Ashley

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Get Bent

Losing is not an option in Jiu-Jitsu. In "the art of flexibility," you strategically gain leverage and yield to the opponent, forcing surrender. If you've ever wanted to get in a cage and duke it out, no-holds-barred, Jiu-Jitsu is your style. As the method of submission taught to U.S. law enforcement and the military, it focuses on what happens in a real fight situation, emphasizing holds, chokes, and joint control to gain command and quell the quarrel.

Local instructor Jerry Brewer takes a "no-BS approach."

"You're not going to see us bowing, or them calling me sensei." An outsider peering into the room might wonder about seeing stocky, grown men embracing and rolling around on the mats, but Jiu-Jitsu acknowledges that most fights don't remain upright very long. On his back, a defendant has two limbs he can attack out with, fending off the assailant until an opportunity arises to gain a choke hold or joint lock, thus ending the fight. "Watch two kindergartners fight and you see that human nature is to go to the ground," says Brewer.

Most martial arts assume you'll stay on your feet, and the implications of knowing how to control a situation from the ground are especially significant for females. "A small woman using her whole body against one joint in a guy's body makes more sense," stresses Brewer. "It's not muscle against muscle."

Jiu-Jitsu as a grappling-based martial art dates back over a millennium, with the prevalent Relson Gracie style developing in Brazil over the last 75 years. The Gracie family molded the most effective holds and movements with new techniques, and have remained unbeaten in an open challenge to black belts of any other discipline. If you've seen the Ultimate Fighting Championships on Spike TV, that's Jiu-Jitsu the 180-pounder's using to make the 300-pound monster grimace in pain.

Jerry Brewer is serious about jiu-jitsu's applications in our lives. He put me in head locks, arm locks, leg locks, and full-body submissions, then let me practice on him. Several times he bent my arms beyond where they've traveled before, and tapping out, I realized the power that joint control gives. A choke cuts off blood flow to the brain, rendering a person unconscious in seconds, only for them to wake up minutes later, unharmed. As a bartender, Brewer used that simple, safe method frequently to end brawls and stressed the advantage of that to a cop. "Suspect was subdued," sounds a lot better than "delivered several blows to the head." "It takes the violence out of it because I don't have to beat the pulp out of someone to end the fight," notes Brewer. "You simply subdue the guy."

A Jiu-Jitsu black belt commonly takes 15 years to earn, a far cry from the 3-5 years or $3,000-5,000 dollars, whichever-comes-first joke about Karate studios. Those who have made that commitment are reaping the rewards. Mark Doran, who trains with Brewer, recently took two gold medals in the Southeast regional tournament, and Brewer's teams have won every year since 1999. He's hosting a tournament at the Citadel on Nov. 4 that's open to public spectators, and in February, 500 military and law enforcement officials will travel to Charleston to compete and hone their skills.

Jiu-Jitsu is akin to a refined, strategic wrestling. It left me sore, but with a few back-pocket moves if I'm ever in a sticky situation. One arm here, the other there, squeeze, and you're out. You won't be taking deep breaths and meditating here, but if you never want to lose a fight, take Jiu-Jitsu.

Relson Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy
West Ashley

Masters Studios
(see Kung Fu listings)

U.S. Hido Kwan Association
(see Tae Kwon-Do listings)

South Carolina Martial Arts
Goose Creek
Offers predator awareness, home safety, and "bully busters" programs

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The Way of the Empty Hand

My first experience with karate came at age 13, when I won free lessons in a school drawing. Halfway through the first (and last) class I attended, I was told to do 50 push-ups because I admitted to not making my bed that morning. I still don't make my bed, but I can do 50 push-ups – if you give me 20 minutes. Neither karate nor I have changed much.

Glenn Arnold, sensei at Mt. Pleasant Karate, leaned across his desk and in a building crescendo, roared, "Karate is all about power, power, Power, POWER!" Trained in classical Tang Soo Do karate by the same teacher as Chuck Norris, Master Arnold is a kind but imposing man with a neatly trimmed beard, not unlike the roundhouse Texas Ranger himself.

Respect and discipline are the keystones of the class – when practicing forms, a lower level belt never passes the senior member in line, and bowing and sitting are done in order of rank. The traditional class is taught with Korean commands, and every action is accompanied by sharp yells. Surprisingly, accompanying a high kick with a sharp "Hiya!" pushed my leg higher and faster. Karate teaches that action is 25 percent faster than reaction, a conviction that permeates all of the sharp, brisk movements comprising the forms.

Steven Jordan, a local artist, has practiced martial arts since high school. Now 58 years old, his goal is to reach black belt by 60. "As an artist, I eat, drink, and think painting," Jordan says. "This is my chance to get my mind onto another art." Jordan was drawn to Mt. Pleasant Karate by the traditional style that Arnold teaches, as opposed to "cookie-cutter sport karate" taught elsewhere.

On the walls of the studio hang Korean characters meaning spirit, concentration, and "one technique."

"Martial arts are like math," observes one student. "There's only wrong or right." Mt. Pleasant Karate is all about discipline, creating "no thought, just action." Arnold compared a karate practitioner to a turtle being hunted. A coyote may prefer turtle soup, but when he sees the hard shell, he'll go for the easy chicken. Learning karate is building that shell. And if you're good enough, maybe you can play a rogue Texas cop on TV. Remember, when Chuck Norris does push-ups, he's not pushing himself up. He's pushing the world down.

Mt. Pleasant Karate
423 Coleman Blvd., Mt. Pleasant

Japan Karate Institute
Locations in West Ashley, North Charleston, Moncks Corner, Daniel Island
Offers a "Little Ninjas" program for children ages 3-6, as well as spring break camps, parents' night out sleep overs, and free transport to their after school programs.

Japan International Karate Center
135 St. James Ave., Goose Creek
"A strong emphasis on mental development"

Natsu Mura Karate and Kobudo
125 S. Main Street, Summerville
Classical Okinawan karate, using hands and feet evenly

Low Country Karate
2700 N. Hwy. 17, Mt. Pleasant
Home of the secret ninjas

Coastal Karate
488 La Mesa Road
Christian based, "bringing honor to God"

P. Thomas Martial Arts
1035 Johnnie Dodds Blvd., Mt Pleasant
Members recently won nine gold medals at a regional competition. Inexpensive classes offered at St. Julian Devine Community Center.

Crown Arts, Inc.
1662 Savannah Hwy.
Stick around for a ballet or etiquette class, also offered here.

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Tae Kwon-Do
Romantic Sport

"I teach the art of living," says Arts for Fitness founder Fred Weil. "Art will take you to a certain level of understanding in life." If winning world championships is any measure of success, Weil's honest, calm demeanor in teaching Tae Kwon-Do works well. Six of his students will travel to Spain on Oct. 20 to compete in the International Tae Kwon-Do World Championships, a competition at which Arts for Fitness instructor Chris Millspaugh has placed second. Highlighting that achievement, Weil's team of six are the only U.S. representatives, whereas his home nation of Argentina entered over 50.

Popularized by Bruce Lee, Tae Kwon-Do has rapidly grown from its origination in Korea only 60 years ago to one of the most practiced martial arts worldwide. The Korean government, hoping to design the ultimate fighting technique, combined all of the best methods into a practice they could use to train the army. Tae Kwon-Do emerged as a wholly secular martial art, able to be practiced as an Olympic sport but still retaining the metaphysical qualities of mind over body control.

Watching the team of six practice, one can see that Tae Kwon-Do's forms are elegant yet forceful. The kicks are polished and smooth, yet lethal – literally.

"You can calibrate yourself to Tae Kwon-Do," says student Mark Creech. "It's a microcosm of life, based on the five principles of courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. When you're fighting in class, you have a 95 percent chance of responding the same way in the real world."

A typical class at Arts for Fitness starts with stretching and warm-ups, then moves on to rudimentary fundamental movements, something Millspaugh compares to musical scales. Sparring, take-downs, and self-defense are practiced before moving onto the forms. "The forms are romantic," says Weil. "You train your brain to send a signal and perform in perfect harmony." Grace and power in syncopation are a beautiful thing to witness, and Tae Kwon-Do provides that union, with the added benefit of learning to defend oneself. Weil stresses that the wisdom Tae Kwon-Do provides cannot be confused with knowledge, or put into words. "Wisdom comes through experience. If all I wanted was to protect myself, I would have gotten a gun." Instead, he defends himself with class.

Arts for Fitness International Tae Kwon-Do Center
Locations in West Ashley, North Charleston, Mt. Pleasant

World Tae Kwon-Do Association
Locations in Isle of Palms, West Ashley, Moncks Corner, Mt. Pleasant

U.S. Hido Kwan Association
Goose Creek

St. Andrew's Family Fitness Plus
1095 Playground Road, West Ashley

Tai Chi
Supreme Ultimate Force

Besides the fact that it's a series of movements used for fighting, everything about Tai Chi is peaceful. At Masters Studios of Self-Defense in Mt. Pleasant, light music plays while the class stretches, then moves through synchronized forms with names like "stepping back to repulse the monkey" and "golden cock stands on one leg." Although the motions are subtle, feet angles and weight distribution are critical to doing it correctly. "It's so big that you don't know what you're getting into," says 12th year student Sharon Scott. "Five years later you realize how amazing it is."

As instructor Mike St.Amand leads the class in forms using swords, Scott takes me and another beginner aside to teach us the "parting wild horse's mane" form. Something as simple as walking becomes an entirely new skill. The key, I discovered, is to let the body learn the motion and the mind follows. St.Amand describes it as "water going down the river. It hits the rock and just flows around it." As an internal martial art, Tai Chi's purpose is to rejuvenate both our spirits and our organs – literally, the insides of our bodies.

"Energy travels in circles," said St.Amand. "Tai Chi creates a circuit through the body as a metaphysical flow, coming out in the palm of our hands. Where your thought goes, energy goes to it, and strength follows." The idea of using swords is to move internal energy through the body, sending our chi (energy) out and into the object, making the weapon "come alive." The slow motions include "blocks" and "attacks," but I doubted that these skills would be terribly useful in a fight. If you do enough Tai Chi, however, you might be able to distill the situation with "calming energy."

Tai Chi came into being when the original practitioners of Kung Fu became too old and couldn't rely on external force. The movements are similar, but focus more on being in the subtle positions that conduct energy. It's priceless as a tool to handle stress. You create artificial stress by stretching and tightening your body, but breathe and relax through it, learning to let it go. "Homework" for the class was to relax your shoulders and breathe deeply each time you reach a red light while driving. The calming music and positive nature of the class is an effective "stress detox," and most of us could use a regular dose.

Masters Studios of Self-Defense
West Ashley, James Island, Mt. Pleasant, North Charleston, and Summerville locations

East/West Health Arts

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Kung Fu
The Complete Health System Of The Ancients

East/West Health Arts founder Bill Fagan is serious about Kung Fu. If you want to take his class, be ready for homework. Texts, nutrition, and mandatory Tai Chi classes are all part of the program, but there's a big payoff. "Kung Fu has been the secret to health, longevity, and vitality in the Orient for centuries," says Fagan. "It's a complete health system."

The Kung Fu approach is twofold. Meditation and Tai Chi rejuvenate the senses and internal organs, using synchronized breathing and movement in a slow, hypnotic fashion. "You can't be happy with a diseased body," Fagan believes, and he educates students on natural herbs, medicine, and Eastern philosophy at the end of class. "It's my responsibility to pass that on." Rigorous, cardiovascular external drills are used to strengthen and coordinate the body, creating a gentle and health-promoting "tapestry of movement."

As a Harvard-trained psychologist, Fagan has seen more than his share of the mentally ill while running a psych emergency room in Boston. He left his practice after many years to pursue his "mental health hobby" full-time, taking a more proactive role in keeping people happy, rather than treating the symptoms in a mental hospital. "Kung Fu is a complete mind and body spiritual experience. Self defense is a byproduct of this physical and mental system."

Stepping into East/West's studio on Folly Road feels like entering an erratic mingling of old-world China and modern America. Swords, paintings, and artifacts from the Orient share the cavernous space with treadmills and weight machines ("How I pay the bills," says Fagan). There's a definite aura to it that the common fluorescent-lit studios lack, lending itself well to an art known for beauty and grace. The children's class includes students as young as five, practicing everything from high kicks to "nunchuckery." Bad guys, watch out.

Taking Kung Fu at East/West is a life-encompassing commitment. Unlike other studios, be ready for heavy emphasis on your life away from class. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is essential to your ability to become proficient. It's a peaceful yet powerful art, and the closest to the original forms created by Bodhidharma at the Temple Shaolin. "The Japanese wanted to be so macho with karate," Fagan jokes. "The Daoists would have laughed at that. Kung Fu is the greatest force using the least amount of energy possible."

East/West Health Arts
792 Folly Road

Masters Studios of Self-Defense
West Ashley, James Island, Mt. Pleasant, North Charleston, and Summerville locations

The Way of Harmony

"To defend oneself while preserving the attacker," is the stated purpose of Aikido, "the way of harmony." Flowing, circular movements allow the practitioner to off-balance their assailant, moving with their energy to neutralize the attack. Akin to Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, throws and immobilizing joint locks are utilized to gain control, but it is generally noncompetitive, stressing compassion, self-discipline, and moderation as key traits. The skills are "street effective," and because Aikido doesn't rely on size or strength, people of any fitness level can participate. The deep breathing and energy centering aspects of Tai Chi are there, but you'll know how to get the gun and pin the robber, too.

Suenaka School of Martial Arts
West Ashley, Downtown at the College of Charleston

Wellness Center, MUSC

Charleston Martial Arts
(see Judo listing)

South Carolina Martial Arts
(see Jiu-Jitsu listings)

Transcending Game

When I lived in South Africa, my favorite evening pastime was to go to a "real" African bar, meaning the music was Kwaito (tribal house) and the crowd, all black. To fit in as a scruffy white kid, you had to dance. Their style is to form a circle, middle-school style, and send two people into the middle. I learned to get down in those circles, playing off the other person, moving with them and challenging them with my own moves.

Brazilian Capoeira is a martial art in a league of its own, akin to tribal dance and set to music, but it's also a highly coordinated fighting technique and, chiefly, a game. Originating in the Bahia region of Brazil, Capoeira was created by slaves to defend themselves. To hide their practice it was set to music and practiced like a dance.

"The movements came about by the situation the slaves were in, for rebellion," explains local instructor Jesse Colon. "Throughout history, it's been an outsider's activity. Slaves created it, then street vagabonds used it against cops, so it had a bad name."

Until being academized as a sport in the 1930s, practitioners were arrested, beaten, and had the tendons in their feet cut. Today it is Brazil's "second sport" after soccer.

Beginners at Capoeira class, held three times weekly at the James Island Recreation Center, are thrown right in on their first day. Class begins with stretches, and a glance around the room shows all levels of flexibility among participants. Next comes a slow movement of shuffling the feet and hands, the basis from which all other moves originate. Kicks and spins always require keeping at least one palm or foot flat on the ground, a crucial detail to prevent injury.

During the last half hour of class, the boombox playing Capoeira music is turned off, and Colon retrieves drums and traditional Brazilian instruments. The class forms into a circle called the "Rota," and begins the "game," in which two people challenge each other in the circle while everyone else sings, claps, and drums. People of all skill levels enter the circle, leaping, flipping, and swinging themselves through the air while simultaneously dodging the opponent's flaying limbs. Words don't do "the beauty of the game" justice.

Colon describes Capoeira as a game like chess, without ever having a clear winner. "It's strategy, and it's always about challenging your partner and feeling the energy of the people around you." The energy is raw and potent, with jaw dropping flourishes. Join up, or see the class in action at their "Batizado" performance at 6 p.m. on October 28 in Physician's Auditorium at the College of Charleston. Eight of the nation's top instructors will be there with the class, and the event is free to the public.

James Island Recreation Center
1088 Quail Drive

A Gentle Aproach

Judo literally means "the gentle way," focusing on flexibility, technique and timing to subdue an opponent, rather than relying on brute strength. Grappling and the trademark "throws" of one's opponent are equally important in Judo. A refined development of Jiu-Jitsu, it is practiced most commonly as a sport, having been an Olympic event since 1964 with strict rules for competitions. There aren't really any "chops."

Charleston Martial Arts
8545 Dorcester Road, North Charleston(inside East Shore Health and Racquet)

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