As promised, here is our first interview in a series about those who’ve grown up with the martial arts in America. Matthew Apsokardu is a writer and martial artist who hosts the Ikigai Way blog and has always been supportive of this site. He was gracious enough to answer a bunch of my questions via e-mail, and then a booster set of questions just a few days later. Here is our interview and his informative and insightful answers to my questions. For more information about Matt, his karate and kobado, and his teaching, check out his website!
What made you want to start training? What was your inspiration?
I got my start at a young age when my uncle decided to open a karate school. It was based out of an old, spacious farm home. My Dad frequently went over to assist in the home’s reconstruction, and I with him (although I was only useful a small portion of the time). Once the school was done, my uncle needed a few students and it seemed like a “cool” thing to do, so I jumped in. I was about 11 at the time.
What do you think of the unique experience of growing up as a martial artist. How was your life different than your peers?
Growing up as a martial artist certainly aided in finding self-identity. It was nice to have an activity that was not directly related to school and all of my schoolmates. At times when you’re growing up you can feel trapped by school, especially if you play sports (which I did). Karate gave me something unique to hang my hat on.
For awhile my training didn’t actually differentiate me from my peers on an internal level, except perhaps to boost my ego from time to time. It wasn’t until my later high school years that I started to realize some of the deeper implications of training.
On an external level, I was a bit busier than many of my classmates because I had to juggle school with both sports and training. Sometimes that training afforded me a little extra respect, and other times a little extra trouble. It was all part of the package.
How has it influenced your body, mind, spirit?
Training has influenced my connection between body, mind, and spirit drastically. Looking back I am able to see the kernel of who I am now in the person I was. However I can also see the parts of me that were built as defense mechanisms because I simply didn’t know how to be better.
Over a period of time I have been able to identify and slowly chip away at the parts of my character that are not in tune with who I want to become. It’s an ongoing process, no doubt, but just being able to visual and act upon it is a true gift.
How have martial arts affected your personal life? Your relationships with family, friends, significant others?
The affect martial arts has had on my personal relationships is significant. Through the forge of training I have come to respect myself more, and thus do not need to keep other people in my life that refuse to treat me with respect.
I’ve been able to eliminate people from my life that deserve elimination, and more thoughtfully care for those people that are important to me.
My temper and stress also have a much healthier outlet via training, rather than spilling out onto the people around me.
What was your relationship like with your master(s)? With other students? How has it grown and changed over the years?
I’m happy to say that my relationship with my masters is ongoing. They all play unique parts that have led to my development as I am today.
- My primary instructor, C. Bruce Heilman, is a stalwart of character and skill. He trained diligently with Odo Seikichi Sensei, becoming one of Odo’s most senior students. Heilman Sensei has carefully crafted his ownorganization to mimic “the old ways” of Okinawan training, and has earned a high reputation amongst even the most skilled traditional practitioners alive today.
My relationship with Heilman Sensei is that of a pure student. He is kind enough to afford me some rank and responsibility in his federation, but every week I train with him keeping “shoshin”, beginner’s mind.
- Heilman Sensei’s wife, Ann Marie Heilman, is an emotional leader for many of us. She forged herself via the cauldron of Odo Sensei’s training, and received her rank from him personally. She developed during a time when women were not particularly welcome in the martial arts worldwide, and proved tenacious enough to outlast many of her so-called detractors.
Mrs. Heilman shows great intuition and personal strength in the dojo, creating a kind and warm presence. At the same time, she does not tolerate the usual “shenanigans” that goes on in martial arts politics and can be a true force when motivated. I try to uphold “right and wrong” in the same manner she does.
- Rick Zondlo is responsible for saving the direction of my training. During my early years I was involved with a lot of the ego trappings of tournaments, rank, etc etc. I came to know Z san and observed how he held himself.
He is an exponent of Japanese Budo as well as Okinawan Karate, and has fierceness of character that I greatly admire. When I started training in swordsmanship and kobudo with him, I learned about the intangibles of Budo and Bushido.
- Bill Hayes is not formally my instructor, but he is a significant influence on my development. I first met Hayes Sensei at an IKKF Annual Training Event, which is a get-together hosted by Bruce Heilman Sensei. Heilman Sensei invites a few highly reputable colleagues from different styles and arts to come together for three days of teaching and learning. Hayes Sensei was a senior student of Eizo Shiimabukuro, Shobayashi Karate-do, and carries on the ways in which he learned karate on Okinawa.
The interesting thing about Hayes Sensei is that he is what many martial artists pretend to be. A major in the Marine Corps, served two active tours of duty in Vietnam, three tours on Okinawa itself, learning the deepest aspects of classical karate from Shimabukuro himself. Hayes Sensei’s technique is beyond written description and his kind of knowledge level can be found in only a few scant individuals per generation.
For me, Hayes Sensei acts as a springboard. I am able to train with him in person a couple of times a year, and can communicate with him whenever needed (thankfully he is generous with his time). Hayes Sensei is a one-of-a-kind guide toward the deeper levels of karate.
My relationship with others students has been interesting as I’ve developed. Due to my young age and appearance, adult students often find themselves at odds when taking direction from me. This was much more the case in years past (I started teaching at age 16) than currently, but it still holds true. It can be especially difficult for visiting students who are just meeting me or only know me in passing. “Who’s this wet-behind-the-ears pup talking to me about fighting and philosophy?”
In what ways do you preserve tradition? In what ways do you change it?
Preserving tradition is a big part of what I do. My style is called Okinawa Kenpo and it is has a rare lineage that is both traceable and intact. It goes something like:
Myself (unimportant) -> Bruce Heilman (senior student of) -> Seikichi Odo (senior student of) -> Shigeru Nakamura (senior student of) -> Shinkichi Kuniyoshi, as well as a student under Kentsu Yabu, Itosu Ankoh, Kanryo Higashionna (there was a lot of cross training in the early Okinawan days).
I work hard to preserve the many kata as handed down to us by Odo Sensei. Odo Sensei not only taught the original forms as given by Nakamura Sensei, but also many kobudo forms from Matayoshi and other sources.
Perhaps more importantly I work to preserve the classical ways in which karate was taught; the deeper methods of a continuum of tools including tuite, tegumi, kinetic striking, and kyusho. The depth of the original forms is a matter well worth preserving, and while I am no expert, I am constantly striving to keep those elements alive which are so rare that they feel like a rumor.
In preserving those classical ways, I am constantly changing and adapting technique to find what works for my body type, strengths/weaknesses, and personal disposition. I can pass along everything to the next generation as it was given to me, but I am also using it to develop myself as best I can.
What are your views on teaching and learning?
Teaching is as great an art as karate itself. My goal during teaching is to discover what each student is capable of, and then figure out what I can do to make them the best version of themselves. This often makes training with me rather unpredictable, but I also think it keeps things interesting.
If the goal of training is personal development rather than rank, there’s no need for a finish line and thus can be a lifelong endeavor.
What are your views on competition?
I spent a decent amount of time doing competition and am left with a rather grim view of it. On one hand, it’s great to test yourself. The stress and anxiety of competition can be a real challenge, and it’s also valuable to be exposed to other styles and methods. In that way, competition is good.
But frankly the whole scene is too far gone to resemble the ideals of classical training. Those benefits I described are snuffed out by the trophies, pomp, ego, and pageantry of it all. Even more nefarious than that is the subtle ego creep that sneaks into the mind of competitors as they become addicted to reward and attention.
Competition is mostly out of the picture for me. There are plenty of other ways to challenge oneself in the arts. In fact, there are challenges that probe far deeper and are far more difficult to confront.
Did you ever want to quit? What kept you with it?
I’ve actually never had a serious desire to quit (knock on wood). I have no explanation for this.
Martial arts has brought me physical pain, emotional pain, moral dilemmas, and much more. I’ve certainly wanted to get away from those situations, but never from the arts themselves.
What drives me to stay in the arts is very complex. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out completely. I know ikigai is involved.
Do you have any regrets?
The easy answer is no; that every experience is a learning experience that has built me into who I am today.
Let’s just go with the easy answer.
What challenges has martial arts helped you overcome?
Innumerable. Martial arts has helped me shape my character, which is what drives decision making. From everyday interactions to life pursuits, I can say that martial arts has guided me.
What advice would you give to a kid just starting out? What would you say their parents?
My advice is the simplest and the most difficult to bear. Stick with it. It doesn’t matter what comes along. Sports, school, dates, injury, alien invasion…just keep at it. When you stick with it everything else works itself out over time.
To parents I would say – be the driving force that keeps your child coming back even after the fun and excitement has worn off. But also be the wisdom to understand when your child has no more desire or love for the art. When done right, it’s just like riding a bike for the first time. You push from behind, push from behind, until the right time and then you let go. What happens happens.
Where do you see your art in ten years?
If done properly, the core of Okinawa Kenpo will be the same in 10 years as it is now. It’s very important to pass the art down through generations without significant alteration. The ideas and launching points as contained in the Okinawa Kenpo system should be preserved for each individual’s exploration. Of course, things will inevitably change in small ways as no two people can be exactly alike, but the effort of preservation should be there. I know I’ll be doing my part to keep it as such.
Where do you see yourself as a martial artist in ten years?
While preserving the core of a system is crucial to proper preservation, on an individual level exploration and expansion is just as critical. I hope to continue improving as an Okinawa Kenpoka, but also continuing to expand my understanding of other styles and create a more complete self. With any luck, in 10 years I will have had a positive impact on my particular federation (IKKF) and on the martial arts community as a whole.