Martial Arts In a Modern World


Shortly after World War II, something new was introduced to the American mainstream: martial arts. With high value placed on tradition and discipline within these ancient practices, maintaining heritage while moving to the US proved difficult.

West Wind Schools focus on teaching a mixed martial arts style called Bok-fu, combining karate, kung-fu, and a blend of other practices. With locations in Piedmont, Alameda, and most recently, on Solano Avenue in Berkeley, they have been teaching in the Bay Area for more than 50 years.

To keep the practice true to the cultural roots of martial arts, Gibran Leon, the Berkeley branch lead instructor, said, “We start everybody off with the etiquette before we teach any of the martial arts. … It’s all about showing respect to the educators and showing respect to the traditions. We maintain strong discipline for our students, making sure they’re coming in clean with the correct uniform.”

For Berkeley High School (BHS) freshman Ben Lazarus, being consistent with ancient teachings is key. The long-time West Wind student and now instructor says, “I think the dojo stays connected to the cultural roots by teaching the same things that were taught hundreds of years ago and making only a few changes to the material … traditions and disciplines that are part of the culture,” he said. 

Recently while teaching at West Wind, Lazarus has seen clashes between modern sensibilities and tradition. 

“I think one of the challenges of staying true to tradition in Western society is people always question things now,” Lazarus said, “whether it’s … Why do we shake with both hands?’ or ‘Why should we bow with our eyes down?’ ” He continued, “I had a student today say that it’s so stupid to bow to every single instructor in the school, but for us, it’s a sign of respect that has been passed down as a tradition for a long time.”

“Our teachings are important right now,” Leon said about how the practice is currently helping the Bay Area community, “especially with the situations that have been happening against a lot of Asian Americans here in the United States, [the] targeted attacks. Through the martial arts and self-defense that we teach, our students can become more capable of defending themselves against similar acts of violence.” 

Lazarus similarly said that “teaching and learning self-defense helps even more now that hate violence has become a more prominent issue in our community. … It’s especially important to maintain Asian cultural practices to help keep the community strong.”