Finding the river within

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We are delighted to welcome Sensei Jonathan Hewitt to share some of his deep wisdom with Alt Ed Austin readers. He is the founder of Life Ki-do Martial Arts, one of Austin’s most beloved, effective, and elevating enrichment programs.

Go with the flow. A profound way to live, but sometimes that’s easier said than done—and what exactly does it mean anyway?! Growing up, I powered through life. My goal was to be the best, the fastest, and the most popular. I was in control, and I was going to make it all happen. But wait— was I really in control? And even when I won the gold medals and got the approval, why did I feel so empty inside?

I realized at a pretty young age that I needed to look inside rather than outside for peace, fulfillment, and happiness. I spent many years searching for answers studying martial arts, psychology, mindfulness, and meditation. What I’ve come to is a place I call the River.

One of the reasons I like this word is that I work with children, and it’s an easy concept for kids to understand and relate to. But it also describes perfectly a beautiful way to live: rivers are always flowing and always moving toward something greater. Inevitably there will be obstacles in its way, but the River moves around those obstacles and never gets stuck. To me, the River is about putting your heart into life and giving it your all.

What it doesn’t mean is being perfect. I call the River’s two opposites Ice and Puddle. Being like Ice is trying too hard, feeling pressured and stressed. Being like a Puddle is not trying enough, feeling lazy, bored, and disinterested. The thing is that we are all like Ice and Puddle sometimes. It’s part of being a human being. The important thing is to not get stuck in judging ourselves and instead keep returning to the River over and over. It’s a fluid state, remember? Not a fixed, end-all state of perfection.

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Finding the River has not only transformed my life but also transformed the way I teach martial arts. I grew up in and taught for many years a rigid, traditional type of martial arts. The techniques were based on a set of preset circumstances—he does this move, so you follow with that move.

But life never happens that way, right? So why not practice martial arts in a way that reflects how we want to live life: dealing with spontaneous situations in a fluid manner? We practice how to take an opposing force and use it to redirect the flow. In martial arts, this might be a physical force, but in life it can be any circumstance or even (and most commonly!) our own inner emotions and thoughts.

The amazing thing is that when you are in the River, your experience with a partner becomes about connection, care, and cooperation rather than about comparisons, competition, and control. These are deep foundations for how to be in relationships with others in the world. Instead of seeing another human being as someone to fight with, or compete with, or compare yourself to, being in the River allows you to feel empathy and compassion for that individual. In our dojo, everyone supports each other to be their very best. Being not like Ice or Puddle allows you to be present and sensitive to your partner’s needs while also communicating honestly and clearly your own needs.

While there are many tools to stay in the River, the most effective by far is the breath, and we practice it all the time. With the kids, we call it Ninja Breathing to imbue the breathing with a sense of empowerment. Harnessing the power of the breath allows us to be relaxed, focused, calm, and present. Ready to see challenges as opportunities to grow rather than as obstacles that are impossible to overcome. Ready to let it come, let it go, let it flow. Like a River.

Jonathan Hewitt

“The gentle art”: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and self-defense for kids

Chris Wilson, a student at Integração Jiu Jitsu here in Austin, joins us on the blog to explain the benefits of this Brazilian form of self-defense and how it differs from some of the better-known martial arts. IJJ is offering a free self-defense workshop designed for homeschooled kids this Thursday, Nov. 3, from 10:30am to noon.

What does it say about our society that many, if not most, parents don’t place self-defense skills very high on their list of important things to teach their children?

Perhaps we should see it as a good thing, an indication that today’s world is safer and less threatening, so spending time on self-defense seems unnecessary. I can see that perspective, certainly here in Austin. An article in Texas Monthly last year placed Austin as number 21 of the 24 most dangerous cities in Texas. That’s fairly good news, but it doesn’t mean self-defense isn’t important as a life skill.

The fact is that kids need to learn self-defense not so much to protect themselves from crime as to protect themselves from other kids. We all know the damage that bullying does to a person. I certainly do. I was bullied for several years growing up. The thing is that I was only attacked physically two or three times. But I was intimidated daily. I was afraid of other kids, even kids my own age, who were just bigger and meaner than I was. How I wish I had been taught to defend myself when I was growing up!

But I’m really not sure that it would have helped. In my day, if you wanted to learn to defend yourself, you took Karate or Tae Kwon Do. So, that’s what I did with my kids. I put them in Karate by the ages of 8 and 6. Sitting on the bench in the dojo one day, after both boys had been at it for over a year, it hit me. They had learned nothing. They punched and kicked at the air. They blocked imaginary attacks with gusto. But they had no actual skills that would protect them from someone who wished them harm.

Sure, they had the confidence that came from breaking boards and getting a new belt every 9 weeks, but they would not survive their first real fight. Why? Because most fights end up on the ground, where Karate and Tae Kwon Do have nothing to offer. Moreover, kicks and punches prolong fights and make them more dangerous—exactly the opposite of what I wanted for my children. I struggled with this realization and eventually concluded that I had to find something else to prepare them for the bullies and jerks of the world.

Then I discovered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The words mean “the gentle art” in Portuguese. Ironically, while it professes to be gentle and almost entirely defensive, Jiu Jitsu is, hands-down, the most effective approach to fighting and self-defense that exists on the planet. Don’t take my word for it. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was started in 1993 to showcase the superiority of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over all other fighting styles.

The UFC in its early days was brutal. No gloves. No holds barred. Anything goes. It was bloody and often hard to watch. We saw giant men in overalls (street brawlers) face enormous chiseled wrestlers and black belts of all types, representing everything from Kung Fu to Boxing to Karate. And who won? The little Brazilian guy using his Jiu Jitsu. He won again and again. Even today, Jiu Jitsu skills are essential to success in mixed martial arts on any level. It’s just that effective.

But this is not about what it takes to become a top-level mixed martial artist. This is about what kids need to protect themselves from other kids. It turns out that the gentle art is superior for this, too. Here’s why:

  • The focus is on defense and on de-escalating conflict. To punch is to attack. To kick is to attack. Even if you’re counter-punching, you’re counter-attacking. That is not de-escalation. Kids who practice Jiu Jitsu do not spend time punching and kicking the air. They spend time learning how to stop or redirect punches and kicks as they gain control over an attacker. They spend time learning how to get the other person to simply walk away.
  • The objective in Jiu Jitsu is to get the aggressor to stop attacking. If a bully knows he cannot win, he will stop. Or, if she knows she will suffer injury if she doesn’t quit, she will stop. This is the fundamental premise of Jiu Jitsu.
  • Training in Jiu Jitsu is real. Students spar against one another in every class. A kid who trains in Jiu Jitsu knows what to do when a fight breaks out, and he or she knows what to do when it goes to the ground (which it almost always does). The mental preparedness that comes from regular sparring is a very big part of the self-defense equation. Being mentally prepared for a fight causes a kid to exude enough confidence to stop it before it starts.
  • Jiu Jitsu equalizes size and gender. This is because Jiu Jitsu relies upon leverage-based control holds to neutralize threats without violence. Students learn to use their opponents’ size and strength against them. These days, when a smaller kid stands up to a larger, meaner one, the big kid should be worried. There’s a good chance the smaller kid knows Jiu Jitsu.
  • Jiu Jitsu is intellectually stimulating. When kids realize the principles of applying leverage using their bodies, a world of possibilities opens for them. They start to recognize that every sparring scenario is different and what they can do is limited only by their creativity and experience. Practitioners of Jiu Jitsu often refer to it as “human chess.”
  • Jiu Jitsu is FUN! While there is certainly some structure to a Jiu Jitsu class, there is also a great deal of room for play. Kids can get great exercise while rolling around on the mats, competing with one another in a peaceful and friendly way. They often don’t even realize how much they’re learning.

All in all, Jiu Jitsu has been transformational for me and for my two sons. I only lasted about two months on the bench watching before I signed up and started training myself. That was four years ago, and now I have the privilege of owning a Jiu Jitsu school with a world-class Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt. It is such a pleasure to watch my kids and the other kids at the school grow through Jiu Jitsu.

It has given them all the confidence they need to stand up to anyone who wishes to push them around or intimidate them. It has given them the skills to not only look after themselves, but to defend those around them when no else can or will. Most importantly, it has taught them how to turn a potential conflict into nothing, which is the ultimate in self-defense. If you haven’t considered Jiu Jitsu as a self-defense/fun activity for your kids, I highly recommend it. Just google Jiu Jitsu in Austin. There are schools all over town. If you want to visit ours, just check out our site at for class times.

Stay safe, Austin!

Chris Wilson

8 big benefits of martial arts training

Anna Balyakina is the director of Mariposa Homeschool Co-op, where she also teaches creative writing and art. Among the co-op’s many offerings for kindergarten through sixth grade students and their families are martial arts classes. Anna joins us on the blog to describe how martial arts can enrich learning and life.

It’s Friday night. The doorbell rings, followed by a rush of children running down the stairs. The room smells of pepperoni and cheese. The kids hop onto the couch, and the previews begin. They picked Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 for movie night because they cannot wait for the third one to come out. Soon the living room is filled with the sound of giggles as Po the panda enters the screen. Your mind wanders to martial arts as an extracurricular activity for the kids.

What are the benefits of martial arts? Below are eight reasons you should consider martial arts training as the perfect activity for your kids—or even your whole family.

1. Self-defense. This is most likely the number-one reason most people decide to try martial arts. I hope that you will not find yourself in a life-threatening situation, but having martial arts training gives you the ability to defend yourself if you need to.

2. Focus and improved listening skills. When you challenge yourself to try something you’ve never done before and you accomplish the task, it makes you feel better about yourself. It also develops mental toughness and focus. This mental toughness is a type of courage. It is being able to realize you have doubts and taking them head-on. It is believing you can handle anything that is thrown your way, no matter what. Taking martial arts classes requires a great deal of focus. You have to be 100 percent in. Because of the physical and mental demands martial arts require, you will find that your thoughts wander less and you become present in the moment. Going through numerous mentally challenging drills, techniques, and training scenarios while under pressure is a personal growth experience.

3. Teamwork and positive social interaction. Taking martial arts classes creates lifelong friendships as well as an awareness of others and their needs. Martial arts classes often emphasize the importance of respect, courtesy, kindness, and sensitivity to others. Students learn to use self-control when working with partners during techniques, takedowns, and sparring. As children mature, they find a sense of belonging, a sense of identity. A good martial arts school provides a positive social network and support group for like-minded folks who are focused on personal development and living a healthy lifestyle.

4. Self-esteem and self-confidence. The great thing about martial arts is that you are not competing against anyone else. It allows you to focus on your own self-improvement at your own pace. Students are able to set goals and achieve new rank levels, which gives students a sense of accomplishment, leading to improved self-esteem and self-confidence.

5. Self-discipline. To move up in rank level, students must commit to their training. The harder they work and the more they practice, the faster they will achieve their next goal or rank level.

6. Accountability and responsibility. A martial art does not just teach you techniques and principles that you can use to defend yourself. It teaches you about the power that comes with these techniques and the responsibility that accompanies them, such as knowing when and where to use this knowledge. Children are taught that they are responsible for their actions and to help others who cannot defend themselves. Students are also taught that they are accountable for their peers and instructor for the way they behave inside and outside the dojo. There is a strict code of conduct and level of expectation for martial arts students. There are consequences for their behavior, both good and bad.

7. Improved overall health. Martial arts increase muscle strength, which can help prevent injury from daily activities as well as reduce body aches and pains as you grow older. Regular training sessions increase cardiovascular endurance and allow you to engage in physical activities for longer periods without feeling short of breath. Martial arts practice also helps reduce risks of obesity, improves cardiovascular health, and increases flexibility, speed, and balance.

8. A structured, safe haven for self-growth. Children do not like feeling embarrassed or out of place or that they are stupid because of mistakes they make. A good martial arts program can provide a supportive environment for children to feel safe about making mistakes, learning, and growing. It can also provide guidelines and boundaries to channel their feelings of independence. This structured environment found in a martial arts class sets the necessary boundaries while still providing plenty of room for freedom of expression.

Registration is open now for martial arts and other classes at Mariposa Homeschool Co-op. The spring term begins January 6.

Anna Balyakina