Mushin Jitsu instructor Hank Sohn (Col ’92, Educ ’06) demonstrates a sequence of blows using his fists, elbows and knees that forces student Caitlin Oldershaw (Col ’08) to the ground. His movements are slow and exact—not unlike a dancer’s—and his punches never land. Oldershaw, like the other students in the class, seems expert in falling and rolls when she hits the mat. It’s a pantomime of violence; both combatants are smiling. After the demonstration, the class mimics their teacher and watches the fluid movements of their own bodies in the mirror.
Every night of the week, students of the martial arts congregate at Memorial Gym to learn new techniques, work up a sweat and—with all the decorum of good sportsmanship—fight. Some train for competition, but most attend classes because they’re fun. Oldershaw, who in high school competed as both a figure skater and a gymnast, has dedicated herself to martial arts during her years at UVA. “I do several of them because I enjoy the physical discipline, but mostly I like the people,” she says.
UVA is home to at least 10 clubs that offer a spectrum of martial arts from traditional Tae Kwon Do to Korean sword fighting to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. UVA even boasts its own discipline, Mushin Jitsu, which originated on Grounds in 2000.
Sohn, who holds three black belts in different disciplines, has taught Mushin Jitsu since its creation. “Martial arts classes have a lot of appeal. They offer good exercise and stress relief. But mostly, we’re all friends,” he says.
Mushin Jitsu means “art of the calm or empty mind” and the name is borrowed from Zen meditation. But Sohn doesn’t fit the Zen stereotype; he has an acerbic wit and banters with his students as he knocks them gently to the mat. “Why do we need to practice moves on both sides of our bodies?” he asks while demonstrating a hook, upper-cut and elbow sequence. When one of his students responds, “To balance mind and body?” Sohn smirks. He isn’t one for Eastern philosophy. Rather, he’s a thrill-seeker who teaches skydiving when he isn’t practicing martial arts.
Mushin Jitsu borrows techniques from traditional karate, Thai kickboxing, boxing, grappling and Filipino stick fighting and is part of a larger movement toward mixed martial arts that has gained momentum since the 1993 inception of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The UFC pitted different martial arts against each other in a bloody, no-holds-barred tournament on pay-per-view television. “The UFC changed the way people train,” says Matt LeFebvre (GSBA ’08), who teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. “Many of the traditional martial arts weren’t really about the practicality of fighting. They were stylized. The UFC brought us back to the basics.”
The UFC’s brutality garnered high ratings but was eventually forced off the air. It re-emerged in the mainstream in 2005 with Spike TV’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter. The popularity of martial arts surged, especially those disciplines that proved most effective in UFC tournaments, such as Thai kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and several “mixed” martial arts.
UVA students cite the UFC, movies like Bloodsport and TV coverage of Chinese Shaolin Kung Fu as inspiration for their own involvement in martial arts. A symbiotic relationship between martial arts and the entertainment industry is nothing new. UVA’s kickboxing club mixes Thai kickboxing and Jeet Kun Do, which was invented by the late Kung Fu movie star Bruce Lee.
“Jeet Kun Do is an overarching set of principles governing how to fight and how to think about fighting,” says club president Binhong Lu (Col ’08). “It is the ‘style of no-style.’ It adheres to effectiveness rather than the preservation of tradition, so it’s always evolving.”
LeFebvre began attending Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes because he wanted to learn self-defense while living in a dangerous neighborhood in California. “After a year, I had all the self-defense skills I needed, but I’d fallen in love with it,” he says. Now an M.B.A. degree candidate at the Darden School of Business, LeFebvre volunteers six hours a week to teach it to new devotees. There is no punching or kicking in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; it is a grappling art in which most fights end in submission on the ground via joint lock or choke. “A good practitioner should be able to fight day in and day out at 100 percent speed without grievously injuring their opponent,” he explains. The sport is not without its bumps and bruises, however. “Some new students come in with an overly aggressive attitude,” he adds. “They learn to respect their opponents quickly enough, though.”
Until recently, UVA offered martial arts classes for credit, but now student participation in the sport is limited to extracurricular clubs. “The martial arts have long been the ‘poor boy’ of the intramural sports,” says Lu. “In recent years, we’ve gotten less and less from the University in terms of times to use practice spaces and funding from Student Council.” Despite this setback, martial arts have developed a devoted following at UVA and volunteer instructors continue to contribute time and wisdom, both ancient and new, to the University community.
Toward the end of the Mushin Jitsu class, the students grapple with each other and their faces flush with exertion. They sweat through their white T-shirts. The shorter ones capitalize on their low center of gravity, while the taller opponents use their limbs like levers. Each pair of fighters moves in tandem, their four feet synchronized as if part of one body. Sohn, always the pragmatist, undercuts the aesthetics of the fight with matter-of-fact instructions. “I don’t want any actual knees to actual faces,” he says. “That’s the ancient wisdom for tonight.”