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Learning the art of self control

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Photos submitted Sensei Sanford of Delta congratulates a student at a recent competition.

There are five secrets of Japanese Goju Ryu karate: Move quickly; have a sound, calm mind; be light in body; have a clever mind; and master the basics. All of those meld together to form two very basic components of the art and discipline of karate: self-control and self-discipline. Those are qualities that Sensei Ray Sanford has spent 40+ years teaching to students of all ages and abilities. Sensei Sanford is a Shihan (seventh degree) black belt, and the Soke (founder) of the American Goju Ryu karate-do discipline. He teaches karate, kobudo (weapons training) and self-defense.

All karate is Okinawan, with Japanese influence. There are several different kinds of martial arts; karate is a discipline that utilizes hard, linear movements and techniques, with a hard, closed fist. Kung fu is more of an open, circular movement.

"It's really important to know exactly who founded your system and style," Sensei explained. He can trace his karate lineage back to Kanryo Higaonna, who lived from 1853-1916. One of his students, Chojun Miyagi, founded and developed Goju Ryu, the traditional Okinawan style of karate. One of Miyagi's students was Gogen "The Cat" Yamaguchi, who after years of training became a master and a legend in his own right. He was from the Gojukai Dojo in Naha, Okinawa. One of his students was an American named Jack Griffin; one of Griffin's students was a man named Will Thomas, who was Sanford's Sensei. Sanford now passes along the tradition, culture, history, technique and craft of the traditional Goju Ryu to his students.

"Goju Ryu" is Japanese for "hard-soft style" and is one of the main traditional Okinawan styles of karate, featuring a combination of hard and soft techniques. Go, which means hard, refers to closed hand techniques or straight linear attacks; ju, which means soft, refers to open hand techniques and circular movements. Goju Ryu incorporates both circular and linear movements into its curriculum, combining hard striking attacks such as kicks and close hand punches with softer open hand circular techniques for attacking, blocking, and controlling the opponent, including locks, grappling, takedowns and throws. It is this style that Sensei Sanford has studied and practiced for many years.

Karate also challenges your mind and spirit, Sensei Sanford said. For those who practice the craft, karate makes you consistent, task-oriented and committed. "You're only going to progress as long as you're committed," Sensei said. Once you push through your body's physical limitations, then it's a test on you mentally. Your physical body ends up affecting your mental sharpness.

"Karate is really about self-control," he said. "We're not teaching people to retaliate or hit back. We're teaching people to block and control that other person. I tell them, don't let them hurt you, but don't hurt them either. It's not about beating someone up, kicking or hitting faster. It's about controlling yourself so you don't hurt someone or allow someone hurt you. Control is the key."

In the 1970s, when Sanford was living in Bakersfield, Calif., he began learning the art and discipline of karate. "I was a small, skinny kid with no athletic abilities at all," he said. He'll never forget the experience of being the last kid picked to play on a team sport in school. Those experiences drove him into learning karate, he said, because he was looking for a change.

By 1974, Sanford had advanced to the level of brown belt, and was teaching a couple of beginners classes. Sanford studied the finer points of self-control, discipline and leadership as an assistant teacher for two years, before he earned his black belt in 1976.

Bringing leadership into the study and practice of karate is something Sensei Sanford believes in strongly, and has incorporated into his own teachings. If a child begins karate lessons at a young age and works into a black belt by the time he's six or seven, he may have learned the technical movement of karate, but he is still learning and growing and needs time to develop into a leader, as well as time to further hone his self-control, Sensei explained. So kids under the age of 15 who are nearing the black belt level are required to do an additional year of leadership training as a brown belt.

"I am helping to develop youths' social and emotional skills, motor skills and their confidence," he said. "Most young people don't have a lot of structure or discipline. I see young kids who are hungry for that structure and discipline. No one holds them accountable anymore."

A kid or their parent may, on a whim, decide to try their hand at karate. But their first lesson is on how to commit, when Sensei sits down with both the student and the parents. Both parties must sign a contract, agreeing to stick out the lessons for at least 3-4 months, or as long as it takes for the student to advance to his or her first belt. "By setting that reachable goal, and not letting them quit, we're developing a sense of goal-setting in them, which will help them their whole life," he said. "I'm here because kids need this kind of structure. Karate is just the tool. If I don't give them something positive, they'll go somewhere else, and what they get may not be positive."

In 1995, he was approached by a staff member at Delta Middle School who wanted to start an after school program for at-risk kids, specifically for kids who were dabbling in gang activity. Sensei Sanford was asked to create a program for kids that taught self-control and discipline. The program was supported financially by the business community, and was used both as a disciplinary program, where kids were sent if school officials decided they needed Sensei's teachings, as well as a rewards program, where kids earned the right to attend. It was free to all Delta County students, from kindergarten to high school. Sensei built the program to about 100 students in each class. That program ran through 2008, until funds ran out.

Through this program, Sanford met one kid, Francisco, who had been sent to the class as a disciplinary measure. He'd gotten into some trouble and was getting more and more involved in gang activity. Francisco spent about two years in the karate program, and ended up going to prison as a young man. About five years ago, Sanford was at his Delta home mowing his lawn when a car drove by. He heard someone shout, "Stop the car!"

"This kid comes running at me, jumps over my fence, and he gives me this hug, in front of all his gang-bang friends," Sensei said. "He wasn't embarrassed to hug me in front of his friends. And that's the impact you can have on kids. I wouldn't trade that moment for anything. It was phenomenal. For him to humble himself, and come give me a hug, just squeeze the life out of me . . . I realized right then that I touched that kid's life. I had loved him and I held him accountable. These kinds of stories keep me coming back. This is what feeds me. You build this really special relationship with these kids. You become like a grandfather to them."

Studying, practicing and teaching karate for over 40 years has taken its toll physically on Sanford. "Sometimes, it feels like enough is enough, physically," he said. "But when those stories happen, you push through it, and you keep on going. I know that's the kind of change than can make or break a kid's life."

He isn't only changing the lives of kids: everyone who walks into one of his classes is taught the technical skills of karate, as well as self-awareness, self-control, self-discipline and respect. His classes begin in silent prayer or meditation, and students can observe either practice, as long as they are silent and respectful. The practice of simply staying quiet and letting others practice their prayer or meditation extends to other teachings in karate, too. "I tell my students that if you can control your mouth, you'll never need your fists, ever," Sensei said. "I teach people that the reason you take karate is so that you don't have to fight. It takes a really strong person, emotionally, to walk away from someone who is bullying them or humiliating them."

About 20 years ago, in his classes Sensei quit separating kids from adults. He initially faced complaints about the blended sessions. Kids were intimidated when they were asked to practice with an adult, someone much stronger, faster and bigger than they were. Likewise, adults didn't like practicing with a child. But Sensei, after seeing more and more reports of children being abducted, molested or otherwise endangered by adults, decided it was to the benefit of the kids to learn how to defend themselves against someone larger than they. "I wanted my students to build some self-confidence, and maybe learn just one technique to defend themselves against an adult. One technique may be the difference in survival."

Today, walking into his dojo, you'll see literally every age, skill set and ability represented. His youngest students are around 4 or 5 years old; his oldest are senior citizens, some into their 80s. He has about 10 brown belt-level students, aging in range from 11 years old to 65 years old, who assist him in his classes.

"We start by putting them in a situation where they have to exhibit control," he continued. Sensei tells his students, "Remember, this is your partner. You are responsible for their safety. You are not allowed to hurt them. You don't spar with speed and power -- you spar to develop control, make your weak side strong, to help someone. Don't always attack -- step back and block, and teach them to attack. You're always teaching each other."

The discipline of karate also welcomes those with roadblocks or disabilities, be those physical, mental, social or emotional. One group he has a lot of success with is those who suffer with ADD or ADHD.

Sensei also organizes a couple of tournaments a year that his students can choose to compete in. It is through the kata competitions that students advance to higher belt levels.

He teaches weekly karate classes during the school year on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. at the First Baptist Church in Delta. The cost is $25 per month, but Sensei works with families if they aren't able to pay. Classes will begin Sept. 5. If interested in learning the discipline, call Sensei at 970-596-9620.

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