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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Kicking the Snot out of Cancer and Other Arkansas Stories

For my second stop on the 50 States Challenge, the kind folks at River Valley Martial Arts agreed to host me.  The dojo is in Russellville, Arkansas, a town of less than 30,000 people, few enough that I got teased for being from the city.  That was funny to me, because being so near Milwaukee and Chicago, Madison seems small to me.  But later I realized they weren't joking--Madison has a higher population than any city in Arkansas.  It was a bit of regional culture shock that I didn't expect.

Kicking in the How To Learn Any Kick event.

Their main program is faith-based, which had me curious.  I wondered what a faith-based program would be like.  The first thing I thought was that so many of my martial arts friends and students were not Christian, and how I would never have met them at a specifically Christian school.  The idea of religion in martial arts is as weird to me as doing martial arts during a church service.  But here is a whole school of people who specifically signed up for religion in their training.  And the whole point of this project is to see and experience other ways of doing things, and Sensei Kyle Bennett offered me a great opportunity to do exactly that.

Sensei Kyle Bennett (right) and some weird blogger (left).

In a striking coincidence, Sifu TW Smith released a KungFu Podcast episode about Christianity and Asian martial arts only a few weeks before my visit.  I was eager to listen, but I waited until the return trip because I didn't want his perspective to color my experience at River Valley Martial Arts.  Now that I've listened, I don't think it would have influenced my visit.  He gives a really thoughtful and well-researched account as always, which I can strongly recommend to anyone interested in exploring the idea of Christianity in martial arts more deeply than I will cover here.  Also, it was cool to hear him reference my Training is an Engineering Problem blog post.

I drove into Russellville after a day of sightseeing and arrived at the dojo just as the youngest students' class was starting.  The center of the training floor was set up with a huge pile of training equipment arranged into the shape of a life size car, complete with seats, seat belts, and swinging doors.  After a warm up, the meat of the lesson was about how to get out of an abductor's car.  The religious element was not pervasive--it was obvious in the beginning of the class and later during the occasional bible-referencing joke--they weren't praying in between sets or anything like that.  At least in that class, I think a non-Christian could have participated with a minimum of discomfort.

After that class ended, I was up.  Sensei Bennett introduced me to the students and handed the class over to me.  It was a wide range of skill levels and ages, which makes the class a little more challenging to teach, but not insurmountably so.  The topic was How To Learn Any Kick, and I went over kicking theory, balance drills, and conditioning exercises that can help people kick better regardless of their age or experience level.  My goal was to make sure everyone got something useful, to make sure everyone felt like they got their money's worth, even though that money wasn't going to me.  It was going to St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital.

Karate and Krav Maga students learning the nuances of pivoting.

There are lots of good reasons to support St. Jude's, but the main reason is because they efficiently turn money into kids not dying of cancer.  We asked attendees to make a donation instead of paying for the class.  The very kind representative at St. Jude's set up a website for us to take donations, but most of the donations ended up being made in cash, which River Valley Martial Arts sent in by check.

Hundreds of dollars worth of cancer treatment and research.

With only $20 being donated digitally, and $437 being donated via check, we ended $43 short of our goal.  Maybe a few generous readers would like to chip in a few bucks and get us up to that $500 mark?  You can still donate on behalf of the 50 States Challenge here.

Either way, it's easy to feel good about raising $457.  That money goes directly toward treating young cancer patients, but the research is freely shared throughout the world so that other families can benefit from new treatments as well.  Each donation to St. Jude's is effectively helping twice.

After that it was time to train.  The school's main program is karate, but they also have a thriving Krav Maga class, which is the one I took.  This was my first Krav Maga class, though I've had some exposure just by casual training sessions with martial arts friends who cross train.  I was looking forward to trying something new.

The first part of the class was an intense workout of exercises that could be found in general fitness classes.  This was very welcome because I had basically been sitting in a car for a week leading up to that class.  My workouts on the trip had been limited because I had to train outside, and there was only so hard I was comfortable pushing myself in the oppressive heat.  It was good to finally do a real workout in real air conditioning.  I suspect that was one of the main draws for most of the people there.

After we were all reduced to quivering puddles of sweat, we were paired off to work on knife defense drills.  All of the specific techniques were new to me, but they all made sense from a general martial arts perspective.  Basically I relied on my understanding of the underlying principles of movement, timing, balance, etc., to keep up with the people who actually knew the techniques.

You're not going to get hurt, but it's still uncomfortable to get poked, so don't mess up!

My absolute favorite part, though, was when we were paired off to wrestle over training knives.  One of my partners (primarily a BJJ student, I think) specifically sought me out.  I instantly felt like I understood him, because that's the kind of thing I would do.  Visitors, if they've trained before, always behave unpredictably.  Visitors present new challenges, even if they're not very good, because they'll spar/roll/drill differently than anyone else you've trained with before.  That day I held my own against some partners, but not him.  He soundly bested me every time.  But I did surprise him a couple times, like it seemed he was hoping I would.  One of those surprises was when I used my foot on his wrist to push his hand off the training knife.  Then he turned around and did the same thing to me, only better.  And I thought, this is how training is supposed to be.

I really enjoyed my visit, and I left feeling a little sad that I was so unlikely to see any of these people again.  But I still have the Statebook, at least.

Thanks for signing my book, guys!

Conspicuously absent from this post is my Takeaway Technique that I learned in Washington and taught in Arkansas.  That's because I'm saving it for the next post.