Fighting To Be Fit

30 Jul

by Eliza Ridgeway for Town Crier (2007-07-30)

Many traditions, styles and techniques make up the martial arts, and just in the Los Altos area, grasshoppers can learn Shotokan and Kenpo Karate, Tai Chi, Qigong, Jiu Jitsu, Thai kickboxing, gym-bunny kickboxing and Tae Kwan Do.
Some of the practices emphasize internal change and philosophy, others brutal physical prowess. But all share a relationship, sometimes only partly understood, between athleticism and spiritual rewards. Visiting the various studios and fight rings around town, a common emphasis emerges: a community coming together to fight and play without judgment.
World-class fighters in our backyard.
There’s no sign outside Fairtex Muay Thai Fitness in Mountain View, but its reputation gives the center an air of lofty mystery rather than obscurity. The center, which opened last winter, is the local outpost of an internationally acclaimed martial arts brand. Fairtex trains and sponsors some of the world’s most elite fighters, who use Muay Thai, or Thai kickboxing, to compete in ultimate fighting competitions. Muay Thai, which uses elbows, knees, kicks and punches, is a foundation for the no-holds-barred fighting style made famous by the Ultimate Fighting Championship and video games such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat.
The gym may train elite fighters, but it also welcomes neighborhood civilians who just want a good workout. Walk past the lobby into the high-ceilinged main room, and you’ll see a full-sized boxing ring and sweat-dewed men and women of all races and sizes. Some hulking guys in muscle T-shirts will be jump-roping with Zenlike focus on one side of the ring while students gather nearby for a Jiu Jitsu class.
Fairtex trains its fighters in Jiu Jitsu as well as Muay Thai to give them an edge in “mixed martial arts,” the anything-goes category of some of the biggest fights.
The kickboxing classes look like controlled chaos, as partners take turns repetitively practicing kicks and punches, not choreographed, not synchronized, with sweat flying and the sound of contact ringing around the room. One has to watch for a while to identify the teacher, modestly dressed, who walks around the room watching the athletes. But when he yells out a command, the melee of fighters snap in unison into a final barrage of punches. Fairtex uses retired fighters, many of them hailing from Thailand, as its trainers.
A sport that’s more physical than philosophical.
Mountain View High School grad Charles Ceasar is one of the success stories at Fairtex – the 35-year-old has risen to the role of sponsored fighter, competing in amateur kickboxing competitions. His next fight is in October. Ceasar began martial arts at age 11, studying Kenpo Karate and 18 years of Tae Kwan Do before starting Muay Thai.
“I wanted more full-contact fighting, with knees and elbows and kicks. It’s just kind of a rush for me,” he said.
A veterinary technician by day, Ceasar acknowledges that his double-life is a little unusual – but it expresses a duality many fighters share.
“By day I’m this gentle-type guy dealing with animals,” he said. “By night I’m here training Muay Thai.”
The prominence of Fairtex’s champions in televised fights such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship brings patrons to the gym. But its reputation for the ultimate workout is just as strong a draw. Amid the young men aspiring to be fighters are women in sweatpants and middle-aged dot-commers. Most Muay Thai techniques use the entire body, rotating and intensely activating the core muscles so prized by health nuts.
Mimy Sisavat, Fairtex’s general manager, estimates that 90 percent of the gym members come for fitness, 5 percent come to really fight and 5 percent are women who come to learn self-protection.
“Cardio and big, bulging muscles are not a requirement,” she said. “It’s like a big chess game.”
Sisavat hits a punching bag, but she said she doesn’t fight.
“I don’t think I want to get injured for a living,” she explained with an impish smile.
“You get up the next morning with a headache and your whole body aching and sometimes you ask yourself why you’re doing it,” Ceasar said, describing the aftermath of a fight.
Fairtex emphasizes safety in its training space, and beginning fighters spar in a helmet as well as gloves. No one enters the ring to fight until they have reached a level of proficiency to control their strikes and not hurt themselves or their opponents.
Why they fight.
The fighters look both contented and at a loss for words when you ask them why they enter the ring.
“Nobody knows why we’re here, but we want to be here,” said Los Altos High School graduate Aaron Wyse. “You go past the fitness part when you get in the ring.”
Wyse, now a rugby player at UC Santa Barbara, wants to compete in Muay Thai and has been basing his summer schedule around training at the gym.
The accounting major said he likes the simplicity of fights in the ring – “Two people step in, one person wins.”
“Everybody checks their egos at the door,” he said. “I think it’s because our trainers are world champions (and nobody could match up to them).”
“It’s a very humble sport. We’re willing to teach anybody. Respect and honor come with martial arts naturally,” Sisavat said.
Fairtex has students as young as 5 years old, offers family programming and is adding yoga classes at its Mountain View location.
“The biggest appeal is just the atmosphere – when you set foot in here, it’s a lot of people mingling. People are willing to help each other learn,” she said.
Family participation.
Family dynamics are a priority in the airy second-story studio of Foothill Martial Arts in Los Altos, where parents can take classes with their children or watch their progress from a TV in a lounge down the hallway.
Jeff Dillard teaches Shotokan Karate, a style that originated in Okinawa. In Dillard’s class, he emphasizes awareness, focus and respect as much as kicking and punching, and he includes principles of self-defense and resistance to alcohol and tobacco.
“A little respect for parents is good, too,” he added. “Physical exercise is fun, then you get to the mental aspect and see … there is more to this than jumping and screaming.”
Parents can take the karate classes with their children, and students range in age from 4 to 50.
“Kids like to do something with parents rather than just be dropped off,” Dillard said. “We allow families in one class – you don’t need to separate by age or come at different times.”
Some students come to the classes with attention problems and physical disabilities, and they can achieve victories learning at their own speeds, said school co-founder Linda Sweeney.
“I like to think that one of our functions is as a resource for the community, for parents faced with the task of raising kids today,” she said.
As a single parent, Sweeney found that her sons Patrick and Kevin responded to the discipline of martial arts and that their practice helped their family life. Now teenagers, the boys help teach the classes.
Martial arts as life skills
Natalia Gabrea Tejada opened a youth-oriented martial arts center at Loyola Corners because she believes in the social and psychological benefits of an education in Eastern traditions. Hiruko is a holistic wellness center that takes Tae Kwan Do training and adds elements of Tai Chi and Qigong, two nonviolent physical traditions that emphasize health and balance.
“Everything we teach is really about enhancing your health and your vitality,” Tejada said. “Typically people don’t think of kids absorbing that very quickly, (and) that, because they’re kids, they’re invincible.”
Instead, she has found that an education in martial arts helps children, including those with special needs, to better understand their bodies and their emotions, and how to handle pressure and anxiety.
“We complement the really explosive, dynamic, fun stuff with giving kids tools in how to calm down and breath. At the end of the day, that’s what translates into real life,” Tejada said. “We’re trying to teach kids to be calm, not to worry about pressure, stay connected to other kids and be strong, compassionate people.”
In addition to its classes for young people, Hiruko offers monthly parent-child classes and some adult programs, including kickboxing and strength and stretching. Tejada has also partnered with the non-profit KidPower, which offers community safety classes at the Hiruko center.
“We got a lot of e-mails after the abduction attempt (outside Santa Rita Elementary in June) with questions from parents,” Tejada said. “KidPower is the way to go, to give information without being scary.”
Fairtex Muay Thai Fitness is located at 2044 Old Middlefield Way, Mountain View. For more information, call 938-8588 or visit http://www.fairtex.com.
Foothill Martial Arts is located at 2245 Grant Road, Suite 200, Los Altos. For more information, call 962-1889 or visit http://www.foothillmartialarts.com.
Hiruko is located at 987 Fremont Ave., Los Altos. For more information, call 949-1233 or visit http://www.hirukocenter.com.

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