Spirit of the Empty Hand

by Gabrielle Balzell
Photography by Greg Balzell

Manipulating body and mind to their full potential through the ancient Okinawan art of karate.

“Karate must be considered, in its final form and spirit, as an expression of man’s indomitable will to survive adversity in the most direct and self-reliant manner possible, requiring only that which nature gave him—a mind and body rigorously disciplined as an inseparable entity.”
– Grand Master Robert A. Trias, author of The Pinnacle of Karate.

Much like Grand Master Robert Trias, an American martial arts pioneer, 23-year-old Adam Bockler takes his discipline seriously. “I think people need to know how to defend themselves,” the second-degree black belt explains. “There’s only so much you can do with a gun… But you can take your hands anywhere, and you can take your mind everywhere.” Hoping to help people wield the power of their own bodies and minds, last year Bockler took ownership of his hometown’s longstanding karate program, Metamora Martial Arts, and opened the reincarnated school’s doors for business just this past January.

Dawn of the Dojo
Founded by English teacher and fourth-degree black belt Joe Chianakas, Metamora Martial Arts (MMA) got its start in 2002 as an afterschool karate program for high school students, before expanding to incorporate multiple grade schools and adult programs throughout Woodford County. Under the direction of Chianakas, it was twice recognized by Black Belt Magazine—for Best Children’s Program (2008) and Best Humanitarian Act (2007) for its Relay for Life Break-a-Thon—and saw 10 of its pupils promoted to black belt, including Bockler.

In the spring of 2003, not long after MMA’s opening at Metamora Township High School, Bockler, an avid pro wrestling fan, signed up for his first lesson, hoping to just learn some awesome new moves. But not long after his introduction to karate, he became completely enchanted by the art and the intellectual satiation it provided. He knew he wanted to evolve into a karate master. After three years of training, progressing through the ranks, and passing a grueling, six-hour and 45-minute exam—which involved recalling highlights of karate’s history, reciting countless Japanese terms, demonstrating every technique and form he had learned, and enduring an hour-long stamina and strength test—Bockler received his first-degree black belt in 2006 at the age of 17. “I had never put in that much work to get anything in my life up to that point,” he remembers. “Looking back on it now, that was just kind of the start of it.”

That same year, with his new distinguishing decoration tied around his waist, Bockler began taking on more responsibility in the program, as well as instructing MMA’s adult classes in Metamora. In 2008, his role grew to encompass leadership of the grade-school program, and by the following summer, Bockler had earned his second-degree black belt. Last year, not long after celebrating MMA’s 10th anniversary, Chianakas was ready to pursue new interests and offered Bockler yet another leadership role: director. Up for the challenge, Bockler seized the opportunity and embarked on the adventure of entrepreneurship, taking the program out of the schools and into the community at large. After settling in at a new dojo on Metamora’s historic town square earlier this year, he was ready to revitalize the program and continue passing down the knowledge and traditions of karate.

Transforming Body and Mind
Drawing on a decade of martial arts experience, Bockler aims to teach people both how to protect themselves and apply the skills they learn in class to everyday situations. “First and foremost, students are going to learn how to defend themselves,” he says. “But they’re also going to learn how to think differently so they can use their martial arts training in their school life or business life.”

Bockler has seen several pupils improve academically as a result of their training, and noticed increased physical fitness among all his students. Moreover, he says, practicing martial arts can benefit adults in their careers, something Bockler has experienced firsthand as a communications and marketing specialist at Float Mobile Learning in Morton. “I can think of different solutions that my colleagues aren’t going to think of,” he explains. “There are different ways up a mountain,” he continues, referencing the mantra of David Hawkey, his sensei, or teacher. “Oftentimes, the goal that we want to get to is the same, but there are different ways to accomplish that goal.” Bockler believes the discipline and techniques taught in karate can help its practitioners find their way.

Under Bockler’s instruction, Metamora Martial Arts students learn to achieve their full potential, physically and intellectually, through Shuri-ryu karate, an Okinawan striking art characterized by distinct movements of the hips, feet, arms and hands. After studying the punches, kicks and blocks of the centuries-old practice, students learn to combine their new techniques in upwards of 20 unique forms, known as katas. “Each individual kata—or series of movements—is a library of knowledge. It’s telling us how we should move for maximum effectiveness to achieve self-defense,” Bockler explains. “To the untrained eye, they look a lot like dances. But underneath all of those dances… they’re actually very effective self-defense systems.”

But don’t expect to just waltz your way through the ranks. Each component of a kata requires the coordinated effort of simultaneously engaging the muscles, balancing in stance, maintaining a gaze, pacing the breathing and more. “You need to be doing a lot at once,” Bockler asserts. “You get one movement, and you have to be doing 20 things to get there.” Considering a typical kata contains between 30 and 50 movements, that’s a pretty complicated “dance.”

While all students start out as white belts (the lowest-ranking color), they progress in rank through periodic tests, which involve meeting rigorous physical requirements and demonstrating multiple katas and the various applications of their techniques. “It’s not like a test you take at school,” Bockler stresses. In karate, each lesson builds upon the last—requiring students to master and demonstrate greater skill with each promotion. Students who earn black belts (the highest-ranking color) are expected to know all katas and techniques from the bottom up, and refine their craft throughout the rest of their lives. As Bockler’s sensei once explained, “A black belt is a white belt that never quit.”

Passion and Potential
To Bockler, karate is more than just memorizing movements and earning belts—it’s about helping others and continuously testing the capabilities of the body and mind. “My favorite part about teaching is when somebody is really struggling with something, and then they finally have that ‘Aha!’ moment,” he describes. Bockler believes everyone should possess “some kind of knowledge of what they can do with their own bodies—how to protect themselves, and then also how to improve their own life, health, fitness, etc.” Karate is a perfect means to do just that.

In his first year of business, Bockler says his primary objective is to draw more attention to the program. “We’ve been in Metamora for 10 years now, and there are still people who have no idea we exist,” he says. “I want to get students that are passionate about learning… and I want the community to support us, and in turn, I want to support the community.” Besides holding demonstrations and seminars outside of normal class hours, Bockler plans to partner with area nonprofit groups and service organizations to involve his students in volunteer efforts and special events.

While the past several months, even years, have been trying at times for the young instructor and entrepreneur, Bockler says all of the struggles throughout his journey have been well worth it. “I get the opportunity to help others achieve their potential,” he reflects, “and I like to learn. I don’t ever want to stop learning, and luckily, there are so many ways that the human body can move and the human body can be revitalized—and also destroyed—that I can keep learning for a long time.” a&s

Ready to realize the power of your own body and mind? Metamora Martial Arts holds classes Thursday nights at the Metamora Community Center, 205 E. Partridge Street. Beginner class takes place from 6 to 6:30pm; advanced class from 6:30 to 7:30pm. Cost is $15/class; $40/month. To register, call (305) 791-5425 or visit metamoramartialarts.com.