Article 2

The Best of Two Martial Arts Worlds

By Geri Gilbert

(Reprinted from Black Belt magazine, June 1984.)

[Black Belt Magazine]

All martial arts draw on the qualities of speed and power with accuracy, although few, if any, do so with the degree of effectiveness that Shaolin Kenpo does. Extracting from primarily the Chinese martial traditions, yet also from the Japanese, the style is a unique blend of not only speed, power and accuracy with regard to technique and application, but is the training approach subscribed to by reputable instructor "Professor" Ralph Castro at his Shaolin Kenpo headquarters in Daly City, California.

As a master of the art, the exterior strength and internal power Castro displays are undeniably apparent and yet, in a non-martial art context, they are complemented in a yin/yang balance by certain additional qualities, such as deep love of family and a genuine concern for all students under his tutelage.

Castro's initial training was in the sport of boxing, first introduced to him by his father, Boss Castro Sr., a highly respected individual in Hawaiian boxing circles. In 1955, the younger Castro began traditional martial arts training, studying kenpo karate under the internationally renowned William K. S. Chow in Honolulu, Hawaii. It is Chow who Castro claims is responsible for all of his technical knowledge, plus his initial enthusiasm for the art. It should be noted that Chow also taught Ed Parker, the head of the International Kenpo Karate Association and a noted martial artist in his own right.

Chow originally trained with the late Japanese stylist James M. Mitose, from whence the Shaolin Kenpo system traces its Japanese lineage. By combining the teachings of Mitose with the extensive kung fu knowledge Chow gained from his father and grandfather (who were of the shaolin tradition), the system of kenpo karate was created. Ultimately, at Chow's request, Castro later changed the system's name to Shaolin Kenpo in order to differentiate between the northern and southern California branch schools, as well as to give proper recognition to the style's shaolin roots.

Subsequent to his discipleship with Chow, Castro began teaching kenpo karate in San Francisco in 1958, a decision which stemmed from the encouragement of his wife, Pat, presently a green belt in the system. Since then, all of their children (April, May, June, Juli, Robbie, Boss III and Mia) have succeeded to various ranks of black belt, thus creating a "martial arts family" in the literal definition of the phrase. Since the opening of his school, the Professor has developed a great number of tournament champions and martial arts instructors. He also founded and currently heads the International Shaolin Kenpo Association.

Shaolin Kenpo draws equally from its inherent techniques and their applications and from Castro's specialized format of teaching the art. A by-product of ultra-traditional study and training, he still adheres to tradition and discipline, maintaining "Throughout all my years of teaching, I've never subtracted anything from that which was originally taught to me as far as technique, application and philosophy. However, to develop and improve students' performance, additions are occasionally made to compensate for individual differences and to fulfill a necessary updated manner of instruction."

In traditional styles such as Castro was brought up in, there was never any question concerning the many hours and, when totaled, actual years of constant practice required to fully understand and appreciate an entire art and its potential. Students would devote themselves completely, as Castro did, to mastering their chosen style regardless of the length of time involved. Yet today, in a time where employment consumes a major part of our existence and other important obligations take up much of the rest, it is next to impossible for individuals to devote themselves so totally as they once did to a martial art, much less teach in the arduous manner tradition demanded. The old method of instruction was to introduce new techniques and their applications daily. If you missed a lesson, seldom, if ever, was the information repeated.

Castro, however, considers this method of teaching both impractical and unfair to modern-day students training two-to-three days a week on the average. He therefore set out to find a mode of instruction where all techniques could be learned and mastered without a lifetime commitment to study. The result was the incorporation of techniques into various fixed patterns. Castro's aim was to facilitate learning so that many techniques could be assimilated as the end result of each pattern. Also, due to the constancy of each pattern, they could be learned at the student's own rate of progress, rather than the individual trying to learn new techniques each day without the opportunity to fully master any of them.

Drawing on the philosophical and spiritual aspects of kenpo gained through his many years of study, teaching and continuous analysis, Castro developed the numerous "key dances" and related sets which formulate the Shaolin Kenpo system. In the basic Shaolin Kenpo curriculum (white belt to first-degree black belt), there are eight key dances and 32 variation sets corresponding to advancement levels. Each key dance simply acts as a main set incorporating all the physical aspects of the system: hand techniques, foot techniques, power, speed, and a constant focus on accuracy of aim within perfection of form. Other related sets, each a variation emphasizing a different aspect, are built on the key dance of each belt level. Thusly, a student's learning capacity and performance ability are not overtaxed.

There are four sets per key dance, each teaching variations on the basic techniques learned within the initial key dance. This way, students can look forward to "new" sets to learn and master, never dampening their spirit of learning and enthusiasm for the style. The complete dance (comprised of the key dance and its set variations) utilizes the knowledge in each level to its maximum potential and can be considered a stepping stone leading to ultimate mastery of the system.

To help simplify, consider the initial key dance which the entire system is based on: "mountain meets river." Its title is an appropriate description of Shaolin Kenpo, "mountain" defining a strong foundation and "river" the idea of flowing motion. Likewise, it is a reference to the equilibrium of defensive/offensive action contained in the system's Zen-like "balance of nature" philosophy. All aspects are given equal attention.

The first variation set of "mountain meets river" is called "high river." In this set the emphasis is on kicking techniques and the development of leg strength. Similar to the concept "a structure is only as strong as its foundation," stability (for proper execution of kicks) and strength (for power at impact) are the main lessons to be derived from "high river."

After completing "high river," the second variation set is "river dam." This specialized set was created for learning defense in a cornered, close-quarters situation, such as when backed up against a wall or a car.

After learning a solid defense from the preceding sets, the third variation form, "swift rapids," involves offensive concepts. Relating to the treachery swift white-water rapids, this set is the first introduction to offense in the Shaolin Kenpo curriculum.

The last variation set from "mountain meets river" is called "high mountain." This set focuses strictly on legwork-kicks and accompanying stances--in the event of one's hands being trapped or otherwise incapacitated.

Castro structures his instruction program in this manner for a reason. "Each level increases in complexity," he explains. "Each key dance and its related sets promote the learning of advancing degrees of knowledge and make the student stronger, faster and not so impatient to learn something new all the time. And since each of the eight levels contains five different sets (one key dance plus four variation sets), each containing numerous techniques and fine points to learn, a student always has something to work on and his natural hunger for knowledge is constantly kept in check."

Once the complete dance is perfected, a student can qualify for a half-step promotion in rank. Shaolin Kenpo employs graduated rank as follows: white, purple/white, purple, purple/blue, blue, blue/green, green, green/brown, brown third, brown second, brown first, and black belt first dan (level) up through tenth dan. Unlike some institutions which automatically promote students every three-to-six months as a type of "ego reward," in Castro's Shaolin Kenpo, promotions in rank are earned and granted in the same manner as a college entrance exam. In formal testing procedures, points are earned on all different aspects of the system, the sum total of which is the determining factor of whether or not promotion is granted. There is no guaranteed advancement simply on the basis of a student's length of study. "Everyone is allowed to take what we call a 'term test,' " Castro notes. "This is after they have completed study periods of at least six months. For progress purposes, they have qualified to take the test of what is required of a person studying for that length of time. However, that does not in any respect guarantee them 'A's or 'B's--they have to earn it! We give them the chance to take the test, but the results are governed only by the students themselves."

Unlike many martial arts containing specialized animal forms, Shaolin Kenpo includes animal form techniques within most sets, but does not feature them to an exclusive degree. Sets like "eagle flies low," "ripping tiger, "phoenix moves gently," "twin dragons," and "panther kneels to tiger," each introduce the concept of animal fighting techniques in addition to those of basic Shaolin Kenpo.

In advanced levels of Shaolin Kenpo, weaponry is studied as a supplementary component of knowledge. Based on the fact that the hands act as the principle weapons in the system, traditional bladed and unbladed weapons are used primarily for conditioning purposes and development of strength. Techniques featuring the staff, spear, baton, tonfa, broadsword, straight sword, butterfly knives and nunchaku are not restricted to a particular set. On the contrary, since all weapons act as extensions of the hands, weapons sets can be performed in an empty-hand context and, conversely, empty- hand sets can be performed wielding a weapon. Because of the system's philosophy barring wasted motion, all weaponry techniques are realistic.

No techniques are taught "just for show" on the basis of their flashy visual attractiveness, only those which possess some type of practical use for the martial artist.

Similarly, Shaolin Kenpo has an extraordinary capacity for successfully applying empty-hand techniques against all types of weapons. "We don't play games here," Castro asserts. "The philosophy at the heart of our system is simple: If you're going to raise your hand at all, you're going to mean it by a total commitment of action. There are no punches pulled or holds barred, especially when it comes to weaponry. If a student finds himself in the position where he must defend against, for example, a samurai sword, he'll do it because that's our training--it's either him or the sword and he knows it."

Part of the process which accounts for this unique ability is the system's omission of practicing prearranged two-person weaponry sets. Such sets are purely exercises and do not encourage or strengthen a person's natural responses, which must be quick in the case of a life-threatening situation such as a weapon attack. What are learned and practiced in Shaolin Kenpo are practical, efficient, effective techniques for weapon defense so students do not respond unnaturally or erroneously. Practice of these techniques in sets allows one to respond naturally, rather than limiting the student to programmed dual-person weapons sets.

Although prearranged weaponry sets are not practiced, preplanned two- person empty-hand sets are heavily emphasized in Shaolin Kenpo. Since a strong defense is only as good as a strong offense and vice versa, students are required to learn both sides of each set-offensive as well as defensive. Shaolin Kenpo sets complement each other because they are mirror images. In other words, each technique within a set links to a corresponding movement in another set.

For learning expedient reflex responses when switching from offense to defense, Castro utilizes three ways of practicing two-person empty-hand sets: doing them completely in their defensive or offensive orientation; switching midway to one or the other orientation; and alternating offensive and defensive techniques continuously throughout the entire set. This is a very advantageous method of learning, over and above that of restricting oneself to learning only one side of a set and, consequently, depending on a partner. Furthermore, it does not limit one's learning of defense or offense to the exclusion of the other, but rather heightens learning by the obvious fact that both sides of all sets must be mastered in order to switch and combine techniques.

Castro encourages students to practice all sets, solo or two-person, in a variety of ways: forward, backward, in varied directions and, doubly increasing the difficulty, from a starting position anywhere in the set. This ensures that students do not perform sets in a habitual manner with no forethought or understanding, like robots incapable of deviating from their assigned programming. The problem with consistently practicing sets from beginning to end and always in one direction is that, if faced with an unexpected situation--i.e., a left spinning back kick rather than the right straight punch learned in the set--chances are you will not be able to adapt to the change with an appropriate response. This accounts for Castro stressing daily that "Movements must never be anticipated in the martial arts. They must be reacted to."

While internal conditioning is developed through breathing exercises and external conditioning through the use of air bags and hanging bags, the speed and power of Shaolin Kenpo technique is cultivated by a simple yet successful method which has proven itself throughout Castro's numerous years of teaching and training. Sets are practiced in their entirety three ways. First students concentrate on form in a slow, relaxed manner akin to the art of tai chi. Then the set is performed again, this time intensely and dynamically. Power is acquired in this way because every muscle combination is used and focused on. At the conclusion of this second method of practice, students have built and tightened themselves in a manner similar to the suppressed force in an overly wound spring. This condition is taken advantage of and used to its fullest in the third practice method, which allows the spring to 'snap,' resulting in an explosion of speed. By concentrating on correct form, followed by a focus on strength and power and concluding with the incorporation of speed, Shaolin Kenpo is developed for the ultimate result--the speed and power defining it as a martial art.

A triad of power is utilized in the system. For simply stopping an opponent, external power is used to strike vulnerable parts of the body. This is called "bruising the outside" and refers to not only a physical "slap on the wrist," but also the idea of psychologically injuring an opponent's pride. When faced with a multiple attack of three or more persons, internal power is brought into play. In this case, damage is done to their internal bodies--a most effective solution except in rare instances. When, however, no choice exists except to stop a single assailant or group of attackers completely, techniques producing a fatal result are taught. These are rendered only as a last resort.

All power is based on the combined efforts of the shoulders, hips and waist. In applying external power, the shoulders are not moved; they are kept square and straight. The result is the same explosion of power generated by the late Bruce Lee--once one of Castro's most cherished friends--in his legendary "one-inch" punch. Regardless of an opponent's size and weight, by focusing the force of one's mind and strength totally within the fist, no individual can stand up to the subsequent power whether or not the source is only an inch away. In applying internal power and stopping an opponent completely, the shoulders are moved in varying degrees depending on the desired result.

One of the strengths of Shaolin Kenpo is its capacity for successfully defending against a multiple attack. The usual one-against-one situation encountered on the street can generally be handled- fairly easily by anyone with a moderate amount of experience in the martial arts. However, when it comes to one against three, five, or ten, the situation changes radically. This is why Castro urges students to "Never take it for granted that an attack will be one to one, because as soon as you've finished with one person, there may very well be an- other to contend with. You may have fought ten and beaten them all, but if you are beaten by the 11th, you will have lost the final and only match that really counts. Therefore, the idea that there's always another individual to contend with should be consciously upheld at all times." Whether dealing with one person or 20, Shaolin Kenpo instills the physical training and mental preparation necessary for defending oneself "to the death" if such a situation presents itself.

In exploring defense against a multiple attack, the system utilizes a Russian-roulette type of sparring set called "circle of iron." This unique set can employ as many as 12 individuals against one. It works this way: In phase one, one person using strictly front kicks acts as offense, while another individual acting-as defense blocks then counters with a straight punch. In phase two, two types of kicks are used instead of one. In phase three, instead of one opponent, there are now two. Techniques delivered in a freestyle manner increase both in quantity and complexity as the number of opponents increases in each phase. The result is a fast and powerful freestyle match incorporating all types of strikes, kicks, blocks and parries. This comprehensive test of skill develops knowledge of correct technique application, prepares the student for what could be encountered in sparring or streetfighting, and improves reaction time. In elementary stages, actual contact is prohibited. In the advanced phase, however, contact is promoted, invariably with the safety of protective gear. Whether at a tournament or in the "anything-goes" atmosphere of city streets, it doesn't matter what is en- countered since it is bound to be similar to what the student learned, practiced, and faced in the circle of iron.

With its multi-faceted capacity, Shaolin Kenpo covers the full range of components comprising a balanced, well-rounded martial art. In addition to offering effective traditional self-defense, factors such as concentration, physical fitness, learning ability, confidence, self-discipline and personal motivation are also enhanced by training in the system. And Castro's teaching abilities act as a strong stimulus in its ever-increasing popularity.

Whatever one's reason for studying martial arts, the inherent strength of Shaolin Kenpo, combined with the vast instructional capabilities of Professor Ralph Castro, serve to promote it as a first-rate representative of the arts today.

About the Author: Geri Gilbert is a freelance writer/photographer from the San Francisco area who contributes regularly to BLACK BELT magazine.

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