tampabay.com

Discipline helps make the point

The philosophy of the Japanese sword art of Yagyu teaches conflict resolution.

By TIFFANI SHERMAN
Published November 14, 2007


LARGO - You could call them the (somewhat) secret samurai of Tampa Bay.

Every Monday night, a small group of dedicated students meet to learn an ancient Japanese sword art called Yagy Shinkage-ry Heih - Yagyu for short. They gather in their hakama, pleated pants worn during practice, at the Orange Lake Civic Center, a few blocks off Seminole Boulevard.

The newbies only handle wooden swords, while more experienced students use unsharpened aluminum blades. Only the most seasoned use a sword with a sharpened edge, known as a live blade.

What they learn and practice is a bit of a paradox: the technique to kill, but the goal of neutralizing opponents without killing them.

There are only two teachers, or sensei, in the United States who know this ancient art.

One lives in Philadelphia.

The other is David Walter, 38, of St. Petersburg.

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Walter went to Japan to teach English after he graduated from the University of Florida. He met his wife there and decided to stay and work in other jobs. It was during the early 1990s, while he was there, that he took his first sword class. He has studied the art ever since.

"It clicked because it provides clarity for other parts of my life," he said.

Back when Yagyu began about 400 years ago, it was to settle differences on the streets, with the motto of ikasu, or "let live."

"You learn to walk into conflict, and if you're comfortable with the concept of conflict, you won't flinch," said Walter, whose day job is designing law enforcement training for the Multijurisdictional Counterdrug Task Force Training program at St. Petersburg College.

"It's not that I'm going to carry a sword around, but if you deal with your conflicts in life the way you deal with your opponents in your sword class, there is an amazing clarity to everything," he said.

In Yagyu, every movement is prescribed precisely, from how many steps to take, to which feet to take them with, to when it's appropriate to turn over the blade and point it at an opponent.

"It's not something that we can whip out and defend ourselves with, but it's practical in a moral sense," said 18-year-old Seminole High School senior Alex Perna.

Perna, who began studying Yagyu about four years ago, said it has taught him the value of practice and hard work. Perna pays his $40 monthly fee and attends class every Monday from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and practices at least another three hours a week.

"Once you get a basic understanding of how it feels, you can go on your own," he said, "I need as much practice as I can."

Kelly Caballero, 32, a database administrator from Tampa, describes herself as shy and said she was in a rut. Since starting to study the intricate techniques of Yagyu about two years ago, she has changed.

"It's given me confidence, I think," she said. "I feel much, much more sure of myself."

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Gardener MaryEllen Doak of Largo started coming to class a couple of months ago after studying aikido, a hands-on Japanese system of self-defense.

"I wanted to study sword form," said Doak, who describes Yagyu as a mental and spiritual exercise. "This is really part of an evolution for me."

New students like Doak use the wooden swords for all exercises. Most of the class is spent practicing techniques with partners, each using a wooden sword. The real swords are about 40 inches long and weigh a little more than 2 pounds. Walter said he has cut himself only once, on the finger, and just one of his students has ever suffered a cut in class.

Because the main point of Yagyu is to allow the opponent to walk away, students learn how to react to different situations.

"Through our techniques, we always give people a chance of life," said Joel Quattlebaum, 17, a senior at Largo High School. He's attended classes for about 11 months and said he has learned to live a life of compassion.

"You study to kill, but then you rage against having to kill people," said Darren Boylen, a 38-year-old computer technician from Tampa. "You do everything you can to avoid the conflict."

That attitude is just what Walter wants.

"I hope they learn a philosophy they can apply to their life whatever it is they do."