How to Stop Fighting

Shaping the Body and Healing the Soul with Hapkido

In October of last year, I was reading The Santa Barbara Independent when my eye caught an advertisement for a free kickboxing class at a martial arts center in town. I had recently returned to the States from a stint as a professional modern dancer in London and was looking for a way to stay in shape while I plotted my next move. It was a time of upheaval: I had ended a six-year relationship and returned to my hometown to be close to my father who is facing cancer. In retrospect I wonder why I even made the call. Kickboxing sounded kind of violent and aggressive; yoga was more my speed. Or so I thought. The skeptic in me shrinks from the idea that such an impulse could have been guided by fate. Another part of me is convinced that fate is exactly what drew me to my first class at Martial Arts Family Fitness.

I was late. I had to rush to strap on a pair of borrowed boxing gloves and join the class, with no time left to reconsider. Twenty minutes later I was bright red, dripping beads of sweat, and grinning like a maniac while I pounded a 6-foot-tall standing bag with everything I had. At the end of class I was still grinning. I felt good. Really good. I liked hitting and kicking that bag. In fact, I wanted to hit it and kick it some more. I felt like Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby (“If you train me right, I’m gonna be a champ!”). I was practically swaggering.

“Where did you train?” the instructor asked. It took me a moment to realize he was actually speaking to me. “Nowhere,” I replied lamely. “I’m a dancer.” “Well, that’s it, we’ve decided you’ll have to train for your black belt,” he told me, laughter creasing the corners of his clear blue eyes. I didn’t know a thing about boxing, kicking, or martial arts. I didn’t know the man I was speaking with was the founder of an entire martial art form. All I knew was that I was hooked. That day I signed up for Kickboxing Ultimate Training: a six-days-a-week, nine-week program of intensive fitness training. At the end of KUT, and in the best shape of my life, I enrolled in the Leadership Training program — a three-year commitment culminating in a black belt.

It’s only been six months, and already I’m a changed woman.

Martial Artistry “I believe I’m fulfilling my purpose when I teach,” KUT founder Dave Wheaton reflected. “It’s my art — it’s kind of my canvas. Every student is a piece of my work, but not just my work; when I’m teaching it’s like something is channeling through me. I’m in awe to be a part of it.”

Like so many good stories, this one begins with a vision. One winter day when 15-year-old Wheaton was walking home from school in Connecticut, an older bully pushed his face in the snow. Wheaton’s thoughts flashed to an image of Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet. “I wish I were Bruce Lee,” he thought, “because if I were, I would jump up and kick you.”

Today, the developer of Dynamic Circle Hapkido and founder of Hapkido International is a gentle man with magnetic presence. Grand Master Wheaton is the head of 13 Hapkido International schools across the United States, from Hawaii to New Jersey. The youngest of these, Santa Barbara’s Martial Arts Family Fitness, opened on Gutierrez Street in November 2002. Parents with children are drawn to MAFF’s family-oriented youth programs, while the center’s intensive Kickboxing Ultimate Training fitness program of cardio-kickboxing and power-band resistance training has already attracted hundreds. But for Dave and his wife Melodee Meyer, the heart of their work is in the martial arts program.

“A lot of people have an impression of martial arts as having this really macho energy — I call it ‘Old-School Dungeons and Dragons Karate,’” Dave said. “We think of ourselves as new-school.” Wheaton and Meyer base their teaching on modern pedagogy, focusing first on the development of confidence and self-esteem. Their approach to teaching martial arts has interesting parallels to the form they teach: Hapkido is a flowing martial art in comparison to the rigid, linear style of tae kwon do, the form in which Dave originally trained. “In tae kwon do the one response to any situation was to strike someone,” he said, remembering the contrast when he first saw people training in Hapkido. “I saw the beauty of it — the emphasis on verbal diffusion, breaking out of holds, joint manipulation. It taught you to defend yourself with the least amount of force necessary.” Over the course of the next five years, Wheaton developed a new style of Hapkido with an emphasis on circular motion and the use of an opponent’s momentum. Incorporating the teaching of kicks, punches, throws, and take-downs; self-defense, meditation, visualization, and energy awareness; Dynamic Circle Hapkido is a system designed to develop health and well-being on every level — physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

In a town already supersaturated with health and fitness programs, gyms, and personal training centers; yoga, Pilates, and martial arts classes; MAFF faces a competitive market, but the competition stops at the front door. For many of their students, it’s the friendly, inclusive attitude that sets the center apart from most workout environments. It’s not an elaborate gym — the dojo (Japanese for training center) is a single, low-ceilinged room, its floor covered in soft matting. During kickboxing classes, 6-foot standing bags are rolled onto the floor; for martial arts classes the space is cleared. Above the mirrors lining one wall hangs a banner that reads, “We are a black belt school.” Below it hangs the school’s five tenets: Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control, Indomitable Spirit. They’re guidelines for ways of living, ideals that Wheaton rarely discusses overtly when he teaches, but that find a way of pervading the life of the dojo and the lives of the people who train there.

“It’s not about violence, it’s about peace,” Wheaton explained. “As you become more proficient, you learn how to stop fights. So it’s like you’re using your body as a metaphor to express what’s going on inside. You can’t have peace on the outside until you have peace on the inside, and that’s what consistent training can help you achieve.” Or as Meyer put it, “You have to learn to fight so you can stop fighting. But the biggest fight is within.” In other words, if you’re experiencing internal combat, it’s healthy to find safe ways to express that struggle physically. Sounds about right to me; maybe that’s why kicking those bags still feels so good.

4·1·1 For more information about Martial Arts Family Fitness, visit or call 963-6233.

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