Getting in shape with DNA at Azad’s Martial Arts Academy
Do you ever look in the mirror and think, “Oh my God, somebody substituted some old fart’s body for mine"? I do now—on good days.
I’ve had more injuries, usually playing basketball, in the past year than I have in the last 10 years of my life. And that’s not the worst of my ills. I also have the self-confidence of a matzoth ball in Syria. Did I mention the depression? I knew that if I were to improve my mind, I would need to improve my body. But where does one begin to look?
My ideal way to get in shape would be to be kidnapped, like the star of La Femme Nikita, and thrown into a secret government lab, where my body would be fine-tuned to that of a dangerous weapon. Or maybe a good book that showed me how to take care of myself would be more realistic. One book, mind you, not a whole litany of self-help tomes, because deep down I know a paperback will never be able to overcome my genetic disposition toward being a spaz.
Ever since I saw David Carradine whomp a wrong-talkin’ cowboy’s hide in the legendary TV show Kung Fu, I’ve been attracted to martial arts. Anyone who has seen a Bruce Lee movie, an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, any of the Billy Jack films or even Miss Piggy in action has secretly yearned to be able to pull off a successful roundhouse kick. But, until I joined Azad’s Martial Arts Academy, in Chico, all my “high ya!s” were uttered only in my head.
I did enroll for a summer of karate when I was 12, through a local Jewish youth group in Newark, NJ. I entered a class full of a bunch of 8-year-olds throwing each other on the ground. Even then, I knew that my fragile ego would not be able to stand such blows.
Thirty years later, I entered the martial-arts academy on Humboldt Avenue, signed up for my first year of tae kwon do, was given my uniform (which still feels more like a costume) and was asked to pose for a picture. It was like having your photo taken at a booth at the Silver Dollar Fair, in an Old West scene, dressed up in duds and six-shooters—a little unreal.
Azad’s has the hustle and bustle of a boot camp. Armies of rugrats, with parents in tow, clamber in each day, referring to their teacher as “Sir,” dutifully “tiger clawing” his palms alongside black belts sparring with nunchukas.
The place also has more black belts than Ross Dress for Less. All shapes and sizes. People you would never in a million years think have the ability to incapacitate you. (Though, interestingly, not one black belt I’ve talked with has ever had to use his or her ability to harm another.) But, like Spider-Man says, with “great power comes great responsibility.”
Of course, I’m no black belt. The only person I can harm is myself. My class is made up students with white and gray belts.
It’s a class of beginners: a young cop, three generations of the Gordon family, the California Eagle Scout of the year, a rough-and-tumble father of two, a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds whose conversations about Blink 182 and System of a Down make me feel really old, and the niece of local rocker Matt Hogan.
We’re a diverse group that comes together twice a week to learn to be better people and to feel better about ourselves.
Another random inadequacy of mine, one that I hadn’t realized was important to learning martial arts, is learning a new language. For the tae kwon do lessons at Azad’s, a few fundamentals of the Korean language are memorized to connect oneself with some of the tradition of the art. Problem is, I can barely speak the English language.
As I have gotten older, not only do I creak more, but my East Coast slang has reappeared, unexpectedly, like the cicada. For me, “Ay-hup,” the number 8 in Korean, will always be pronounced IHOP and make me hungry for pancakes.
I’m 42 years old, white and not rich. Not a great way to start off the 21st century. I wouldn’t say that my body is in shape, but rather that it is a shape. In my family the men die of heart attacks. Not all the men, just my father, grandfather, brother, three uncles and assorted cousins. The women all die of stress-related diseases that come from having all their men die of heart attacks. I joined Azad’s not out of a desire to kick ass, as much as to insure I don’t croak in the next few years.
Being Jewish, I’m not so much a warrior as a worrier. I ooze stress. At Azad’s, this modern-day malaise is worked on as much as the body. As Master Azad recently said, “Harvard has done research that shows that we speak 1,000 words a minute to ourselves, in our heads. The thing is that when we tell ourselves, ‘I’m stupid and ugly,’ our brains start trying to answer with reasons why we’re stupid and ugly. If you tell yourself, ‘I’m loyal, handsome and smart,’ our brain will feed us with more pleasant thoughts. You must fight against the detrimental things you think about yourself.”
Like Kung Fu‘s Cane learning to walk on the rice paper without leaving footprints, this student is learning that the greatest fight is inside. Words like “integrity,” “modesty,” “indomitable spirit,” “compassion,” “gratitude” and “victory” float around the academy like colorful butterflies. There is an underlying noble spirit inside the building, that of a community integrating in an atmosphere of respect and, more important, that of a young man’s ability to believe in himself slowly returning.
9/11 knocked me for a loop. I think I’ve been in shock for two years. My whole world has been turned upside down and shaken for loose change. So it’s no wonder that now, when an 8-year-old throws me on the ground, all I can do is laugh.
Yes, I do feel silly jumping up and down in my white bathrobe and pajamas that swallow my skinny frame. And yes, doing sit-ups while saying, "I’m a good cook, I’ve got a great hook shot and I got a girl who loves me," does border on the ridiculous. But, for whatever reason, in these strange days, Azad’s feels like home to me.