A kick, a jab and a ‘ki-up’

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Times Staff Writer

He first lunged at me with a whoosh of a front kick, aimed at my head.

At least I could see his bare foot coming and pulled back in an un-artful half-limbo sort of way. But, in the Studio City martial arts class, I couldn’t anticipate or defend myself against the spinning kicks and jabs that followed. Good thing my 230-pound sparring partner, who’s more than twice my size, stopped just short of making contact.

Even before the sparring drill, I had known I was out of my league in the class taught by Byong Yu, a grandmaster in taekwondo who holds a top-ranking ninth-degree black belt. At age 68, Yu can execute breathtaking jumps while delivering three midair kicks.

Among those Yu has trained is Jennifer Garner, the actress who plays CIA double agent Sydney Bristow on ABC’s “Alias.” Garner’s character is a ferocious fighter who, sometimes in stilettos, takes down Hulk-sized men.


As a fan of the show, I thought it would be fun to try one of Yu’s classes. Also, in the last few years, I’ve become impressed by other small-boned actresses who, with a little Hollywood magic, manage to flip big men like coins -- particularly Zhang Ziyi, who played the daddy’s girl turned acrobatic warrior in the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Zhang and Garner remind me that even women with small frames can use martial arts as a form of self-defense, not to mention as a way to build upper-body strength.

According to 2002 census statistics, of the 5.4 million Americans who participate in martial arts more than once a year, about 42% are female. Although I’ve taken boxing and kickboxing classes at my gym, I don’t have any training in karate, kung fu or similar disciplines.

I could see how women might be intimidated by any sort of combat training. In my boxing classes, men who could not match me in rope jumping or other conditioning exercises dominated once the punching started -- they simply overpowered me, a fact that, unfortunately, was readily apparent when I walked into Yu’s small studio at the CBS Martial Arts Center. (His school is on the CBS studio grounds, although he has no connection to the television network.)

Before he zipped through basic moves with the five other students, Yu asked an assistant to pull me aside and break down the maneuvers step by step on thick red mats. A male student sized me up and joked: “Don’t break her.” Ouch.

It didn’t help that I hadn’t boxed or kickboxed in about a year. I was so rusty that I lost my balance on roundhouse kicks and other basic moves.


Yu, author of “Inside U: How to Became a Master of Your Own Destiny,” advises beginners like me to first take five or six private lessons before joining the group sessions. The private lessons are intended to get students up to speed on basic moves; the initial one-on-one training is part of an $80 monthly fee for as many as three group lessons each week. (Students must sign up for a minimum of six months, at $480, and buy a uniform, which costs about $40 at specialty stores.)

Or, after warming up with stretches, you can jump in the way I did. Yu allows beginners to sit out the advanced drills or try to participate as best they can. For instance, instead of repeatedly hopping sideways over an 18-inch-high cushion and executing a midair kick, I concentrated on simply jumping.

Other drills called for a mental adjustment. For instance, I’m used to hitting and kicking a punching bag that is hung from the ceiling. In Yu’s class, we kicked a 5 1/2-foot-tall unattached padded bag that sprang back on impact, which forced us to keep on our toes in fighting position, arms in front of our faces, hips squared. The advanced students knocked the weighted bag to the floor; I tipped it back a foot or so.

“You realize, when you can hit the heavy bag, ‘I’m strong,’ because as women we’re not really encouraged to fight or be rough,” said Teri Jaworski, a 33-year-old actress and dance instructor. “I didn’t know that I could hit that hard.”

I had forgotten how much muscle it takes to kick a bag, and later, mitts held aloft by fellow students. It was frustrating to realize I was not helped much by my current exercise regimen.

Even though I run, take Spinning classes and work out on a balance trainer -- a jiggling flat-bottomed dome used as a resistance device -- I still could not get off a solid kick and hear a reassuring, resounding thwack more than a few times. And when I did make the connection, I still lacked power.


The workout was good for conditioning, demanding the use of muscles that I usually ignore, such as my biceps. Still, with only basic moves in my arsenal, I didn’t work hard enough to get sore afterward or get my heart rate up the way I do on a steep hike. I noticed that the more experienced students, who moved with power and speed, dripped with sweat.

Martial arts training also stresses the concepts of respect, particularly toward the teacher, and discipline. Yu was strict but good-humored. In a drill that emphasized form, a student’s back leg was not positioned correctly, so Yu gently kicked it into place. He wasn’t happy with the way a student said “ki-up” during a series of moves and made her shout the word until he was satisfied. The word is supposed to help focus a person and should come from the gut, giving the person a burst of “ki,” or energy, Yu explained later.

Near the end of the hourlong class, we put on gloves and footpads for the sparring drill. We rotated partners every three minutes, taking turns at offensive and defensive roles.

Yu talks about the way that martial arts clears the mind and allows a person to focus on one’s life. When it was my turn to advance against my first partner, the one who had tried to lop off my head, I forgot that I was half my opponent’s size and out of my league. For a moment, I was Sydney Bristow on the attack, and the feeling of having someone retreat from my blows -- even as part of a drill -- was intoxicating.

I couldn’t wait to get stronger so I could hold my own next time and not be pegged as fragile again.


Times staff writer Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at