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Slice of Life: What it’s like to be a martial arts grandmaster

ST. CHARLES – According to Grandmaster Chu Ma’s philosophy, a good martial arts instructor should be gentle but firm, patient, encouraging, enthusiastic, inspirational and motivating.

Ma, 58, has practiced martial arts since he was 10 years old. His training started in South Korea, where he grew up, and continued after a three-year stint in the Korean Army. With nearly 50 years of experience, Ma now specializes in teaching Hapkido at Traditional Martial Arts in St. Charles.

An eighth-degree black belt, Ma said he became a grandmaster once he hit the required age of 50. He said 15 other grandmasters have to give their approval in order for Ma to achieve the distinction.

He said there are two main types of martial arts practices – one that’s more of a linear style with hard, stiff movements, and another that requires softer and circular movements. Hapkido is a combination of the two styles and includes some tribal martial arts, such as stick fighting, he said.

“My philosophy is keep flowing, circular movements and harmony,” he said.

Teaching Hapkido goes hand-in-hand with teaching proper etiquette, Ma said.

As adult students filed through the door at the dojang – formal training hall – for class earlier this week, each showed respect with a quick, but reverent bow, touching their closed right fist to their open left palm. The bow represents the mental and the physical coming together, and the offense meeting the defense, Ma explained.

Students took off their shoes and began warming up with another instructor, doing breathing exercises and stretches as the instructor methodically counted to 10 in Korean. Students addressed both Ma and the other instructor as “sir.”

Two signs hang on the wall to the right of the main entrance. One outlines school etiquette – rules students should abide by while taking a martial arts class – and another outlines home rules for children.

The first school rule states, “be on time for class.” Other rules include instructing students to not leave the practice floor – a wide area of blue- and red-colored mats – without the instructor’s permission, and to not face the instructor while tying one of the colored belts that reflects a students’ level.

The last rule is stated as plainly as the first rule, “Use your martial arts skill for self-defense only.”

“People think [martial arts] is fighting, fighting, but I don’t think so,” Ma said. “The most important part of martial arts is the development of mental power through discipline.”

The mental aspect is huge, he said, and helps set the foundation for other areas of a student’s life, especially younger students. He said the mentality of “I can” rather than “I can’t” makes all the difference. The art is more about self-assurance than being the stronger, more powerful fighter.

In fact, physical strength isn’t much of a factor if Hapkido techniques are applied correctly. Hapkido teaches students that rather than resisting an attack, it’s more productive to defend an attack by using leverage, Ma said. The martial art of Judo, he explained, requires about 70 percent power and 30 percent technique, and Hapkido is the other way around. Meditation and breathing exercises also come into play.

As class went on, Ma walked around the mat to observe students’ techniques, stopping every once in a while to correct a stance or demonstrate a succession of technical moves.

“You never really stop moving,” he said. “You keeping flowing, like life.”

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