Fists. Fury. Force. Popular culture misrepresents martial arts — from Bruce Lee’s iconic films to the Karate Kid’s romanticized saga of love and kung fu; to the groundbreaking, soaring exploits of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon”; to the emergence of Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”. If it’s not (mostly) vengeance, violence and velocity, it doesn’t sell.
Yet beyond the glitz of the big screen, in neighborhood dojos and nondescript boxing gyms in gritty corners, children and adults learn combat sports are tools to steel your mind and muscles.
Sure, there’s punching techniques, sweep kicks, power and endurance drills. But, the art of defense is more than methods to inflict hurt (only when necessary). In harmony with the cardio high, those skills are best cultivated alongside lessons of balance, discipline, resilience and restraint.
On a warm, rainy Thursday, I’m invited to Alexandria, Virginia to observe photographer Shaughn Cooper’s boxing class. Blessed with a disarming smile and a keen eye, Cooper spends much of his time traveling the world, documenting Grammy-nominated R&B artist Ari Lennox’s tour stops, stewarding a scholarship program for aspiring young photogs seeking higher education and taking on various projects.
The talented Maryland-born creative, with an impressive resume of clients — including Google, Youtube, Cîroc and Vice — often moves with a quiet confidence. Though on this day, Cooper unfurled another side. His smile fades, replaced by a snarl, and he locks in on delivering punch after venomous punch. Wrapped in a purple and black Black Panther-themed boxing hand wrap, his fists fly through the air. He and his five classmates move on command with precision through their warm-up ritual, before putting on the gloves and maneuvering through an exhaustive itinerary of drills, flashing an imposing display of speed, agility and strength. Jab-cross-jab. Cross-lead. Hook-cross-step back-cross. Jab-jab-jab.
Puncturing Negative Energy
Cooper was drawn to martial arts at a very young age.
As a kid, he escaped into anime, including indulging in the long-running “Dragon Ball Z” series. The spiky-haired characters mimicked skills Cooper later learned could be acquired in real life, while imparting several admirable teachings: virtues of teamwork, loyalty and trustworthiness.
“Seeing them move how they move, and then finding out as I got older, that you can actually get trained to move like that has always been amazing to me,” Cooper says. “Even now, I’m realizing movement is really good for healing trauma.”
As an adult, he engages in both kickboxing and boxing, disciplines with life-altering fundamentals.
What started as a way to stay in shape and gain confidence — often finding himself in situations with “abusive people” and people he was afraid of, because he couldn’t fight — evolved.
Cooper’s constant pursuit of mastery has transformed martial arts and boxing into weapons for peacefully navigating (and surviving) life’s challenges, as he embraces tenets of Eastern philosophy.
“When I don’t practice martial arts and community building as much, there’s a buildup of really bad emotions that come over me,” Cooper explains, describing the puncturing of negative energy exercise facilitates.
The movement is a form of release, like the steam dissipating from a pressure cooker. It gives him control and clarity.
Through martial arts and boxing, he’s also discovered his tribe: a close-knit, ride-or-die band of brothers and sisters. As I sit watching the boxing cohort gather in their instructor’s garage, strong bond apparent. Sidestep the good-natured teasing. Wipe away the dripping sweat. Strip away the coaching and breaking down of bad habits, and you unearth something enduring — uplifting love.
And listening to Cooper tell his story later that day, as I reflected back on the raw aggression I witnessed just hours earlier, I came to better understand his world; the jabs, uppercuts and footwork are rudderless without purpose, a supportive community and the space to develop as a person.
“Once I graduated college, I became really good at photography and realized if I wanted to overcome my mental struggles, I needed anchors in my life that were there for me no matter what — martial arts, my grandmother, goddaughter and family.”
The “Sweet Science”
Boxing is a battle of the mind and body. It’s a dance of fisticuffs that dates back to ancient Rome, and first made its formal appearance in Olympic competition in the 23rd Olympiad (688 B.C.).
Most amateur boxing matches are slated for 3 rounds, 3 minutes each. At the professional level, it’s 12 rounds, at 3 minutes each for men; Women’s boxing has 10 rounds at 2 minutes each. Though most boxing bouts rarely go the distance, ending in a knockout, technical knockout, injury or disqualification.
Known as the “sweet science,” boxing requires fighters to use fierce, tactical know-how to best their opponent, while laboring against exhaustion, round after endless round. Conflict is complicated and often comes with consequences. To this end, Cooper uses martial arts to fortify himself.
Among the many lessons he’s learned, responding with the right intent and staying in the moment looms large.
“Martial arts is teaching me how to dance with life and how to submit to it.”
Cooper believes our everyday experiences with other humans are much like the boxing ring; a disorienting anxiety can accompany reacting too rashly, especially the moment a “punch” is thrown, even metaphorical or emotional ones. In his view, better outcomes are achieved through stepping back, evaluating the situation, then responding — he calls it “meditating” on what’s before you.
Mike Tyson once famously said of Evander Holyfield “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The oft quoted phrase is a cautionary tale. The message? Expect the unexpected. Either you adapt or unravel — Cooper harnesses martial arts to evade the latter.
Earth, Wind, Water + Fire
As Cooper has matured, he’s increasingly aligned his thinking with the pillars of Eastern philosophy: spirituality, wisdom, benevolence and collectivism. Cooper draws from the principles of mindfulness, feng shui, taoism and the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius to gain an understanding of the world around him.
One such positioning is seeking out how manifestations of the natural world show up in his practice, in the people he meets and in the places they converge.
“I love how martial arts often [employs] fire, wind, earth and wood (breaking boards, bricks and walking on embers are common visuals).”
As someone with a calm demeanor, Cooper channels earth and water and likens aggressive individuals to the ferocity of fire. He explains through martial arts he’s learned to become water to counter other’s fire.
“When I meet people that are very aggressive, I know that whenever I deal with them, I have to approach them from an understanding point of view instead of attacking them or chastising them.”
Disarming others, avoidance and “do no harm” are core tenets of his practice.
The devotion demanded by martial arts bleeds into other areas of his life, such as photography, giving him the poise and posture to stay in the fight, even — and particularly — on the long, hard days. It’s what’s necessary, if he wants to perpetually hone his craft and grow.
“I learned if I want to become a great photographer, I have to become a great person first,” Cooper says.
Through his new philosophies, he’s become someone capable of resisting and conquering his demons (again and again).
Tips from the Master
Eric Otten is a 25-year martial arts veteran and 15-year Aikidoka (one who practices Aikido), having risen to the level of Aidan: a second degree black belt in Aikido. Otten offers several tips for anyone embarking on their martial arts journey:
Wear comfortable clothing with long sleeves/pants; depending on the martial art, this will help prevent scratches and rug burns on your body.
Breathe. This helps you relax and is a key component in all martial arts.
Be prepared to be sore. [After your first session], you’ll probably be sore the next day or two from unfamiliar movements. This goes away with repetition.
Don’t get discouraged. Martial arts takes time to learn and apply — remember it’s about building up your skills and confidence and it won’t happen overnight.
Watch the instructor’s feet. Martial arts are usually whole body movements that work from the floor up.
Drink plenty of water before, after and during.
Don’t go all out with each movement. You need to learn the techniques properly so that you don’t hurt yourself in the process. Speed and force will come over time with practice.
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