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Serene warriors

It's not Crouching Tiger and it's not Jackie Chan. To Shin Do, more than anything, encourages harmony, self-discipline and character.

By JOEL POILEY
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 25, 2002


TAMPA PALMS -- John Reiner was in the right. The other driver had cut him off. Miles later, the man was being a hothead.

But none of that would have mattered had their conflict escalated into violence. And Reiner believes that might have been the outcome had it not been for the self-control he learned through To Shin Do.

Reiner, who works at the Kennedy Space Center, travels weekly from Merritt Island to a studio in Tampa Palms to learn this Japanese martial art.

At the Quest Center, instructors teach body movement and physical positioning more than kicking and throwing punches. But they place equal emphasis on respect, self-discipline and focus.

"I studied several different martial arts around the world, including England and Japan," said Mark Russo, owner of the studio at 15049 Bruce B. Downs Blvd. "I'm taking what I thought was the best of those things and putting together a patchwork quilt that I called an eclectic system ...

"Then I realized somebody did this 900 years ago, so why reinvent the wheel. This art has kicking, grappling, joint locks, pressure points. Everything is in there."

Most martial arts, including boxing, use the legs to create the distancing and the arms to deliver the power. To Shin Do uses the arms to create the distancing and the legs to deliver the power. It requires less energy but is much more powerful because gravity is used along with body weight.

"We allow the attacker to wreck themselves," said Russo, a fifth-degree black belt who, at 44, is a powerfully compact 5 feet 9, 193 pounds.

"Any system that is based on superior speed and strength is an investment in diminishing returns, because there is no human being on the planet that is getting younger and stronger and faster. We are all doing the opposite. I found as I aged I would have to train twice as much to retain half the level of skill."

Verbal attacks, road rage

To Shin Do means "the way of the heart and the sword," Russo said, including harmony with one's environment.

"We have that in every class," Russo said, because "although the probability is that you won't be physically attacked in the next 12 months, I guarantee you that you will be emotionally attacked, you will be verbally attacked, you're going to be financially attacked. And all of the principles and dynamics that we use to defend against a physical attack are really the same as defending against those other forms of attack. So we want the students to realize that the principles are universal in their application."

To understand those principles, consider Reiner's experience.

Cut off in traffic, Reiner had honked his horn, then noticed that the other driver was deliberately following him.

"I turned in to get a paper and he parked about 15 feet away," he said. "The guy keeps looking at me but doesn't say anything. So I'm behind my car for cover, and I tell him, "You know why I honked at you. Because you cut me off.' "

The man let Reiner know how angry he was, and as he walked away he felt the presence of danger.

"I'm not seeing him, but there's a sensation like there's pressure on me," Reiner said. "And as I turned around and met the guy's eyes, he stopped about 5 feet from me and he's hollering, veins popping, swearing, the whole thing."

That's when the To Shin Do kicked in.

"Sensing the intent, and knowing that was coming, I made the judgment call that I was the one who screwed up," Reiner said. "So it was upon me to say, "Hey, that was uncalled for. Maybe you had a bad day. I tell you what, why don't you have a great day and I'll see ya later.' "

It worked. The man calmed down, got in his car and drove off.

MBA with a black belt

Some of his business comes from the military, where he teaches weapons retention to Air Force combat fighters

"If you're in a Third World country like Afghanistan, these guys have made it clear that they will sacrifice themselves," Russo said. "So you could easily have somebody walk up to you and wrestle with your weapon, or come up behind you and take you out."

He has been in four movies, and customers actually ask him to teach the stunts they've seen inCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

"Hey, listen," he says. "If you find a school that can teach you how to fly, call me, 'cause I want to go there. This is nothing like the martial arts people see in the movies. That's not realistic. People get hurt doing that, but in the movies they walk away like nothing happened."

In real life, one-on-one confrontations can occur in a parking lot, nightclub, school hallway or in traffic. So Russo and his staff train their more than 260 pupils from around the state to use their mental prowess as much as possible.

Part of that entails stepping out from one's comfort zone. Russo chose the Quest logo, which depicts a solitary figure moving out from a circle, with that in mind. The idea is to stretch people's mental and physical limits by dealing with realistic confrontational situations.

"You don't have to be built like Arnie (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to benefit from this because it's all about the dynamic of the art -- sword being your body, heart and spirit," said Reiner, who has trained with Russo for about 10 years.

"The whole idea is that if you live your life in that sort of harmony, you just tend to avoid danger. Danger is somewhere else. This is the beauty of this. It helps you get along with all different personality types and take the changes in life in stride."

It has helped 6-year-old Ryan Blitzer of Hunter's Green gain discipline, character and confidence in the six months he has been in the program. Ryan had tried karate, but his father, Doug, said To Shin Do had a more nurturing effect. "For his age group, they take it down to their level," Blitzer said. "They don't talk above their heads; they treat it like a first-grade class. Because of that they tend to observe more and learn more and they have fun. All those things, the ability to follow directions, the confidence, it transfers right into his everyday world."

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