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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