SHAOLIN KENPO ASSOCIATION
SHAOLIN KENPO's "49ers"
By Geri Gilbert
(Reprinted from Official Karate magazine, December 1985.)
The mastery of martial arts has always demanded years of intensive training. This is true of both traditional kata and competition kumite. An inherent problem is that such a lengthy investment is difficult for most individuals to adhere to within modern society's 40-hour workweek and familial obligations. In addition, the primary decision to undertake such a commitment by most persons is based on learning self-defense, with tradition, exercise, health, and philosophy viewed as secondary. This conflicts with the ideology of most martial arts styles where self-defense is considered a by-product rather than the main objective.
With the increase in violent crime today, the desire to learn self-defense skills is not only common, but indeed necessary. This forms the basis for the current quest to acquire such knowledge by a simple method of instruction within as short a time as possible.
In Daly City, California, a comprehensive program encompassing both empty hands and weapons defense within a five-week time span is readily available. It is taught by world-renowned "Professor" Ralph Castro. Professor Castro is the founder and director of the International Shaolin Kenpo Association. His martial arts training was in kenpo karate under the illustrious Great Grandmaster William K. S. (Thunderbolt) Chow in Honolulu, Hawaii. Since the opening of his first kenpo studio in 1958, Professor Castro has taught a countless number of martial art instructors and champion competitors who carry on the tradition all over the world. He has also been the "guiding light" in instructing his own children (April, May, June, Juli, Robbie, Boss and Mia) who currently holding varied degrees of black belts, are also teachers of the art.
In the 1960s, the Professor created a unique self-defense program. It was called the "49ers," owing to its incorporation of 49 different techniques. Its establishment was originally based on the suggestion of someone who, although he had respect for the martial arts tradition and all it comprised, could not devote himself to the standard time commitment. "At the time," Castro recalls, "I didn't have an open mind on the subject. Coming from a background of tradition. But after much personal thought and various discussions with colleagues, I discovered this to be a common desire among students. And as a parent - especially one with five daughters - realized the importance of the general public being able to defend themselves in addition to my own children who had the advantage of being trained in martial arts all their lives."
In the creation of the 49er program, Professor Castro extracted the simplest, most effective techniques of the Shaolin Kenpo system. The two types of individual the program was designed for were: (1) the man, woman, or child seeking to learn self-defense while foregoing all other aspects of study, and (2) the martial arts enthusiast searching for the best system to engage in. This blend of technique simplicity within a five-week time schedule provided away of learning basic defensive skills in the midst or sampling what Shaolin Kenpo had to offer as a system of fighting.
The main question in response to any short-term learning process is, "Will it work?" - followed by, "What guarantee do I have?" Such concerns are particularly prevalent in martial arts where an uncontrolled stimulus (such as a punch or kick) must be met by a controlled defensive response. All reactions must be correct in form and instantaneous in execution. Time cannot be wasted in analyzing which of many learned techniques is the "right one" for the specific situation. Nor can precious seconds be spent judging proper distance from which to perform a technique or the best target area to strike. In addition, extraneous variables such as fear, hesitation, anger, or memory lapse must be by-passed. Separately or in combination with each other, such emotions can negatively affect performance in terms of technique choice, distance, timing, speed, and power.
Taking all these factors into account. Professor Castro incorporated within the 49er program a technique-application philosophy which he compares to "carrying a gun." "You don't have to be a professional sharpshooter with respect to accuracy," he states "but at least have sufficient knowledge and skill to effectively use it if the need arises." There is no unconditional guarantee that any technique will knock an assailant unconscious. As the Professor relates, "It's a rarity to have the legendary heavy weight champion 'Joe Louis punch' in absence of long years of traditional martial arts study."
However, as numerous graduates of the Castro program can attest to by the varying degrees of injury caused to would-be attackers, the kenpo techniques within the 49er will distract, disarm, and disable an opponent. This allows the "victim" the opportunity to leave with his life intact - which is, after all, the real objective in self-defense.
In the past, individuals who chose to commit themselves to study the complete Shaolin Kenpo system did not learn the 49er program. They were thrust directly into the standard curriculum of punches, blocks, kicks, stance training, forms, and sparring. This discrepancy was eventually resolved as Professor Castro considered, "Why not show all students the techniques of the 49er program - the short-term self-defense-oriented individual, as well as the long-term Shaolin Kenpo practitioner. This way, they'll be able to immediately defend themselves against the mainstay of attack situations. Besides, regardless of whether they decide to switch schools, systems, or quit martial arts altogether in the future, they will always have that solid foundation on which to draw." Thus the 49er program became a requirement for both the serious kenpo student and the interested but non-committed, everyday person.
Over and above the mainly defensive techniques comprising the basic 49er program. Shaolin Kenpo students are required to learn four variations called "Cross Swords." In addition to the basic program's emphasis on defense, these advanced stages also accentuate the offensive. Each variation subscribes to a gradient of increased complexity. Paralleling a tiger's fierceness when in defense of its life, the complete kata at this level (basic 49er plus Cross Swords) is referred to as "Advancing Tiger."
The methods by which Professor Castro's 49er program is taught are unique. In place of regular group classes, private Instruction is customary. These entail 30-minute sessions on a twice-weekly basis. The hour per week shared between teacher and student is minimal in comparison to that which is available the rest of the week. The majority of practice and training is therefore self-taught in nature.
Another novelty to the Castro approach is that mastery of standard kenpo basics must be omitted by reason of the five-week time limit. As a result, a question soon arose as to how students could best guide themselves in practicing how and where to strike. Professor Castro's years of experience as a martial arts teacher ultimately led him to the answer. He developed the idea of simultaneously verbalizing words with the techniques themselves: for example, saying "Face, groin, face" while executing a punch to the face, hammerfist to the groin, and repeated facial strike.
Identical to the word-usage concept, numbers were employed as a secondary means of practice. For instance, saying "One, two, three" while delivering the face-groin-face trio of strikes. The Professor noted that there was a significant correlation between the speed of verbalization and the speed of performance. The faster a person could count, the faster he could strike.
The Castro approach to self-defense is as unique as the Shaolin Kenpo system itself. Most traditional systems emphasize "form" to the exclusion of all else. This is based on the theory that all elements eventually fall into place. In Shaolin Kenpo, all five elements of learning - knowledge, foundation, speed, power, and accuracy - are given equal attention and worked on at the same time. Nothing is left to be a by-product of latter study, training, and practice. "A solid punch delivered to a vulnerable spot." Professor Castro relates, "may very well save your life regardless of whether your opponent is physically larger and stronger. Yes, he may appear to be overpowering, but he still has two eyes, a throat, a groin...all defenseless body areas." The kenpo motto is simple: Learn the knowledge within a solid foundation and with relative accuracy, then go for it - hard and fast, fast and hard.
Philosophical diversity also exists between the Castro 49er program and other self-defense course. A fair number of martial arts systems avoid promoting martial arts as a method to teach fighting per se. It is defined, instead, as a means of attaining spiritual growth, as purely an art for, or a way to achieve good health through exercise. Such systems also credit non-contact kata over full-contact kumite. In a world already filled with undue violence, this tends to give a lilly-white image to the subject of martial arts, to make it acceptable to everyone: women, children, pacifists, and the art's main critics - the media.
In reality, the fundamental concept of martial arts, from its timely origin to the present is based on learning how to fight in order to defend oneself. While the passive, idealistic elements are essential, they are outgrowths rather than the central foundation. In keeping with tradition, Shaolin Kenpo does contain its artistic, philosophical, and spiritual elements. However, it is a direct and powerful system aimed at controlling violence by actively confronting it. Professor Castro's 49er program is a contemporary representation of this straightforward and forceful, non-pussyfoot approach.
Another dissimilarity involves the aspect of performance. Whether the focus is self-defense or traditional kata, many systems insist on absolute perfection of performance. Unless students completely master knowledge shown in their previous lesson(s), no new material is presented. All members of the Castro family are ultra perfectionists in teaching. This same perfectionist attitude extends to the expectations and demands placed on their regular Shaolin Kenpo students. Yet, due to the five-week time factor, this unwavering strictness is somewhat lessened for the 49er student. It is impossible to expect an eye thrust to be delivered with pinpoint accuracy from an individual at this stage of training.
Professor Castro's underlying rationale mirrors a master psychologist as he states, "All human beings are different. They each have varying degrees of strengths and weaknesses. From day one of the five weeks we have 49er students; we learn what their individual strong points and shortcomings are. We then focus our energies in class time to obtain the maximum potential of their natural capabilities. At the conclusion of the program, if they do decide to commit themselves to study the Shaolin Kenpo system as disciplined martial artists instead of short-term practitioners, our demands and expectations increase relative to their commitment."
The majority of self-defense programs tend to limit instruction to defending against barehanded confrontations. What distinguishes the Castro program from all others is its emphasis on multiple attack from both an empty-hand and weapons standpoints. The Professor's approach is based on the logic that it is impossible to predict the manner and/or location in which an assault will occur. Attacks can be enacted by an executive in a custom-tailored suit as well as a drunkard on the street. They can be performed in high-rent districts or in slum areas. A single assailant can be involved as in a barroom brawl or half a dozen attackers at night in a dark alley. Confrontations can be barehanded or involve a stick, knife, etc.
In each lesson, 49er students are taught a new and different technique for countering the mainstay of common encounters. Defense is learned against a frontal grab, right and left punches to the face and body, standard boxing methods, kicks plus an on-coming club, or knife. Included also is utilization of a wall in those cases, where a person may be backed up or cornered against such a barrier. Knowledge gained by graduates of the Castro's 49er does not include a hundred intricate techniques, nor are students qualified to represent themselves as martial artists. What they do know in the realm of self-defense, though, they know well, and can use in an efficient, effective manner.
All combinations of 49er techniques can be used to overcome singular or multiple attacks since no law exists to ensure all assaults will be delivered by only a single individual -- there may be a dozen! In view of this fact, techniques such as the face groin face strikes referenced previously can be directed to a single assailant or dispersed among three. Realism is heightened by actively practicing the concept of multiple attack in class.
In contrast to martial arts kata, 49er techniques are not directed to imaginary opponents in absence of contact: punches are not pulled in the Castro approach. Students become accustomed to receiving forceful strikes and grabs from all angles. By practicing different angles of attack and separating combination techniques into singular ones, the position from which an assault is initiated and the number of perpetrators becomes insignificant. Relatedly, by employing both empty hand and weapons defense within free space and close cornered situations, learned techniques are applicable to all circumstances. This enables students to use their knowledge anywhere, not only within the safe and artificial confines of the dojo environment.
The key to the Castro program is linked to the foundation on which the Professor's distinguished teaching reputation is built -- simplicity combined with maximum effectiveness. Rampant in short-term self-defense seminars and programs are instructors who attempt to teach students knowledge that has taken them a decade or more to master. This yields nothing more than frustrated, unmotivated individuals, besides detracting from the value of the martial arts system itself. As the ultimate drawback, it forces the person to "think" before acting."
The kenpo techniques incorporated into the 49er are simple to learn and simple to do. There are no hidden secrets, mystical meanings or abstract concepts to decipher. Everything is easy to understand and to perform. Stressing the principle of being "reactionary. Instead or preplanned," Professor Castro states, "In self-defense, there is no time to think, only to react. Even a spilt second devoted to thinking or other causes of hesitation could cost you your life in a real street fight." Based on this line of reasoning he encourages his students. "Go ahead, don't be afraid to make your mistakes here in class, because we'll be here to correct you. Conversely, you can't afford to make mistakes on the street. Out there you're on your own and facing the ultimate test -- not of your teacher's ability for theirs has already been established, rather, of your own commitment and internalization of what you were taught.
"We can show you countless techniques from beginner through intermediate to advanced. But the only one who can really teach you, who is continually present for you to study with 24 hours a day, and who'll be right beside you when you're facing that punch or blade in the street, is you. Instructors can only do so much. They can demonstrate, correct, suggest, and advise; they cannot, however, learn the material for the student.
A new play on the old phrase, "Practice makes perfect," the Castros promote instead, Perfect practice makes perfect." It is of no value to practice numerous repetitions of techniques if they have not been learned properly in the first place. Such action only reinforces incorrect habits, which are twice as difficult to break and correct. It is of greater benefit to learn a few techniques that can be performed well, than a hundred such moves which are improper in form and useless in application.
With the assortment of black belt instructors available, in addition to the Castro family members themselves, Shaolin Kenpo students are assured that any questions or corrections will be promptly attended to. There is no excuse for learning and practicing incorrect forms. This is amplified in the case of self-defense, where such inattention to detail could cost one his life.
The study of martial arts is not a game. Within the four walls of the dojo environment, a safety factor perpetually exists. Minor injuries may incur and are to be expected. Major ones requiring hospitalization or resulting in death are strictly guarded against. Oppositely, no such restrictions apply on the street, where it's a free-for-all carnival of violence. No referees are present to disqualify a groin kick, eye gouge, throat slash, or skull fracture. All weapons are acceptable - whether officially legal or not. The winner is not judged by a score of points and given a trophy amidst cheers and applause.
In real self-defense, victory is decided by the simplest, most primary law of nature -- whichever of the individuals is left alive. People should be able to defend themselves regardless of age, sex, or physical limitations. In making his program work for all, Professor Castro has even altered the 49er program to make it available to handicapped persons -- one of whom has continued his study to the rank of black belt. Self-defense doesn't have to be difficult, confusing, or something reserved for a chosen few. In fact, it's the simplest techniques that always seem to work best and are resorted to when the need arises. The Castro approach defines such simplicity and effectiveness. All in all, the techniques of the 49er program do not require a color-belt rank to comprehend, nor a weight lifter's strength to perform. All that is really demanded is a sincere interest to learn and practice.
International Shaolin Kenpo Association [Article 4] - Revised 4/11/98
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