The five principles hang in a picture frame on the wall, giving visitors an inkling of what they might expect when they enter the dojo.
“Effort, etiquette, sincerity, self-control, character.”
These are words that mean a lot to Sensei Jeff Kash, the instructor at the United Studios of Self Defense in Laguna Beach. He tries to convey these things to the young — and the young-at-heart — who enter the doors of the small studio, tucked into a corner of the Albertsons parking lot on South Coast Highway.
Kash, 33, said it’s the only karate studio in Laguna Beach; he’s run it for about seven years. The instructors teach shaolin kempo — a mixture of karate, kung fu and jujitsu.
“MMA stands for mixed martial arts,” he said. “But martial arts is mixed. People unmixed it and focused on certain aspects, but kempo is still all of it. We cover everything — punches, kicks, knees, elbows, takedowns, throws, grappling, all of that kind of stuff. It’s very comprehensive, well-rounded.”
He has about 110 active students and probably a million stories, but there’s one he pulled out of the collection when talking about what his job means to him. He talked about a student who goes unnamed who Kash pushed hard, harder than others.
“He had to stop because of his workload in high school, and I thought the kid just hated me,” Kash said. “When he graduated high school, he got five tickets to his graduation – two for his parents, two for his youth pastors that he’d known forever and one for me. That kind of hit really deep, that we make a huge impact in these people’s lives.
“Professionals? This is their release. They get to drop their baggage outside and just come in and forget their world for a while, and leave with a smile on their face. That’s a great thing to be able to provide people.”
Late last week, several students also returned from an experience they probably won’t forget. Kash returned from China with six USSD Laguna Beach students who were testing for black or brown belts. In a 10-day trip, they visited Shanghai, Dengfeng (the city that contains the Shaolin monastery) and Beijing.
“Generally every two or three years we try to take a trip out there,” Kash said. “Dengfeng is where the temple is, and obviously where the monks are. We spend a couple days interacting with them and training with them, learning from them. It’s an incredible opportunity. We took six people, three of them tested for their black belts and three others got various levels of brown belt. We had a mother/daughter combo go.”
Some students weren’t yet qualified to go on the China trip, but Liv Mitchell said she would sure like to go someday. Mitchell, 8, is a Laguna Beach resident who has already been going to the studio for about four years. She currently has a blue belt with a green stripe.
“It’s really fun,” Mitchell said of her lessons, which happen three times a week. “I get to meet new friends and I get to learn tough defenses to protect myself if something happens. It’s really fun to learn new techniques.”
Ryan Caraher of Laguna Beach, also 8, fells the same way. He’s a green belt and comes to the studio twice a week. His mother, Alaine, was one of the students who tested for her black belt in China.
“I like that you learn new stuff every day,” Ryan said.
USSD is a national organization, with nearly 30 studios in Orange County alone. Kash, a Costa Mesa resident who began training in martial arts out of college, is a third-level black belt — a “sandan”. He likes to keep it low-key for the most part. At Monday afternoon’s training session for children ages 6-10, he told one of the students to “snap out,” before looking at him and pausing.
“I said snap out,” Kash joked. “I didn’t say lay out like you were in the Bahamas.”
Later, Kash said he remembers that he is, after all, working with kids.
“I’m a little more relaxed, I suppose, then some,” he said. “When you think of martial arts, you think of strict discipline. But, especially with kids, they have to like what they’re doing. We try to make it a fun environment ... I’ve always had a good time in the dojo, and I think that’s important to carry on for other people. Every student’s different. Some need focus and discipline, but other people are just doing it for fun.”
Winter Bonnin has two boys who attend the studio; Alex, 9, is a green belt with a brown stripe and Zach, 7, is a blue belt. She said she is perhaps most impressed that her children can remember such elaborate routines.
At home, they can practice together against each other.
“There are kids in there 4, 5 years old who remember these long maneuvers,” she said. “It’s just mind-boggling ... I think it’s amazing in the level of commitment.”
Alex has been doing karate for more than half his life, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
To her, it’s what she hasn’t heard from her son that may be the most telling.
“In all of these years, not once has he ever complained,” Winter Bonnin said. “Never once has he said, ‘I don’t want to go.’ ”
And, to Kash, what he is teaching goes beyond the studio.
“It can work for anyone,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m too old,’ but you’re never too old to get started. There’s always somewhere you can go with it.”