A Martial Art for Modern Times

This is an article written by Andrew Cauley that was placed on odeum entertainments Web site (www.odeumentertainment.com). Andrew came in to observe several classes and he participated in one adult class to write this article about us.

Lead by Example, Follow by Choice

Michael Miller’s Kenpo Karate  Dojo teaches a martial art for modern times

I never thought I would get done in by a rubber ball, especially not while I was learning to defend myself during my first experience with Kenpo Karate. That green, squishy, bouncy ball kicked my butt all over the place, but thankfully, I wasn’t the only one.

“I hate the ball,” joked one student of Miller’s Kenpo Karate as we waited in line. Little did I know, but I, too, would soon come to hate the ball. Running across the gymnastic mats during some warm-up exercises, I thought nothing of having to do ten pushups on the dodge ball-sized toy after having easily dispatched thirty between a pushup bar and a set of the Perfect Pushup. This ball, however, was much more than met my eye.

Straining to complete even one pushup as the ball collapsed underneath my meager 150-pound frame, I heard a bit of laughter from the more experienced members of the dojo. I hadn’t realized how out of shape I’d gotten in a couple of months away from a gym or any workout equipment.

“I love it, those are my favorites,” said Michael Miller, the owner and head instructor of Miller’s Kenpo Karate. A fourth-degree black belt, Miller quickly dispatched somewhere between ten and twenty pushups on the ball with no more effort than he would exert tying his shoes before he put the toy away and plowed into what I was really here for: a lesson in American Kenpo.

American Kenpo, or “the art of logical and practical thinking,” as its creator Ed Parker referred to it, is a nontraditional martial art. This allows the art to be flexible and ever changing, a trait that can be observed throughout its history. A martial art form originating in Japan, Kenpo underwent several key changes on its path to becoming American Kenpo.

James Mitose forged this path and brought Kosho-ryu Kenpo to Hawaii, calling it Kenpo Jiu-Jitsu, Miller said. At this point, Kenpo was already becoming a sort of hybrid art, focusing both on attacking vital areas through striking and throws, locks, and takedowns. Later, Mitose’s student, William K.S. Chow, further enhanced the art by incorporating both the linear movements of Japanese styles and the circular movements of the Chinese arts, according to Miller.

American Kenpo as we know it was pioneered by Chow’s student, Ed Parker. A street fighter, Golden Gloves boxer, and black-belt in Judo, Parker addressed several issues that allowed American Kenpo to be more effective in street fighting situations, Miller said. After all, how much is a system based on the rules of the ring going to help on the street, where there are no rules?

One of the techniques we covered addressed an important concern: What should I do if I fall down?

I found this to be very interesting; in most of my experiences with martial arts, I wasn’t supposed to fall down, unless I was directing and controlling the fall. However, this was more of a lesson in getting knocked down and how to maintain control of the situation and get back on my feet. It was, in every sense of the word, a realistic tactic, and one that undoubtedly would prove more helpful that almost any punch, kick, or throw that one could be taught, especially for a novice or someone caught up in an actual down and dirty street fight.

“We know, in reality, the smart thing to do is stay on your feet,” Miller explained.

“If I go to the ground on the streets, there are no mats out there. There’s pavement, there’s gravel, there’s whatever else I’m dealing with. But we don’t know if someone’s going to knock us to the ground. So the reality here is, try to avoid the ground, but if you go to the ground, know what you’re doing, and get up. You’re not going to lay around looking for an arm bar when his buddies, cause you know he has buddies, are going to come up to you and kick your face in.”

Now that’s a reality check. This is the logic behind Ed Parker’s system, and the sort of practical situation in which it was designed to be utilized. There are no referees to break up the fight on the street, except for maybe someone’s steel-toed boot. No one is going to wait around while I make time to execute something fancy, and no one is going to blow the whistle if something isn’t fair.

For the exercise, we fell (carefully) on our bottoms, then assumed a ground position that sort of resembled sitting Indian style, only tilted to our sides. With our feet together, our knees bent, one leg laying on the ground and the other in the air in front of us, we guarded our faces with one hand and rested the other behind and beside us on the ground for support. The benefit of this position was three-fold: it provided stability and protection to all vital areas, made it easy to gain leverage, both for attacks and movement, and allowed for us to get up easily when the time was right.

This was the drill: we were to protect the side of us that was vulnerable to the attacking leg of our ‘opponent’ (if the attacker was to switch legs, then all we needed to do was sort of flop the position over, which was easy to accomplish and another benefit of the position) and when the attacker moved toward us, we would use our legs like springs to push ourselves away. Immediately afterward, we would kick our opponent’s leading leg, immediately pushing ourselves away one more time. Afterward, we would stand back up, but the beauty here is in the details.

While explaining the last portion of the exercise, starting with the kick, Miller asked an important question:

“What if I missed?” What do you mean, miss? You’re a black belt, I thought. You aren’t supposed to miss.

“You see, I look at ‘what ifs,’” Miller asserted. “In Kenpo, we are not locked into one dimensional thinking.”

Sure, maybe a good black belt like Miller wouldn’t miss, but it was always a possibility. And the cold reality was, a person like me could very well miss. After all, I had just been put in my place by a rubber ball. This, in my experience, is what set American Kenpo apart from other martial arts: it’s willingness to change, to adapt, both to the student and the times, and take the present situation on it’s own terms.

Parker said that comparing a traditional art with a modern one was like comparing checkers with chess. I was beginning to see why; it wasn’t just a blind set of rules to follow, at least not at Miller’s school. There was a real pragmatism to what we were learning, and reasoning behind it. We were encouraged to think about what we were doing and ask questions. Miller likened the evolution of American Kenpo to that of technology.

“Do you still go to the nearest phone booth when you are leaving the grocery store and need to call to check up on your mother, or do you have a cell phone?  You see, as times change, so should the art to fit modern times. American Kenpo is modern and always will be because it is constantly evolving.  Traditional styles never change.  They are taught the same way today as they were thousands of years ago,” Miller said.

Another facet that distinguishes American Kenpo is that it also allows for the personal expression of each individual. After all, it is a form of art, isn’t it?

“Each Kenpo student who learns the system develops his own unique style and continues to grow the system through his own interpretations, knowledge, and experiences,” Miller said. As a result, Kenpo is a system that creates styles.

“With Kenpo, we teach you how to think. Don’t listen to what I say and take it as gospel, there’s no such thing. Listen to what I say, think about it, analyze it, dissect it, put in your own experiences, your own knowledge, your own education, come up with your own ideas; that’s what this is about.”

Miller’s classes are tailored both to the age group they are focused on and to the individual. Before each of the classes I had observed, Miller walked around speaking with each person about their day, and during the lesson, he often helped students personally with each exercise, addressing their needs on a personal basis.

As a former CYS caseworker, he has experience working with children and addressing their needs in addition to his years of teaching Kenpo. His classes are broken into age groups that correlate with child-development stages (Little Dragons, ages 4-6; Kenpo Kids, 7-9; Junior, 10-15; and the adult program), and he tailors his instruction to not only teach Kenpo, but also to improve basic skill sets that each age group is prime for, but with a focus on the art of Kenpo. And you wouldn’t know it watching one of his younger classes; as far as I could tell, they were doing Kenpo the whole time. And as far as they could tell, they were too, and it’s because they were, but they were also developing coordination, their overall health and stamina, respect, dignity, self-control, focus, and as a result, self-esteem.

Basic techniques are taught in every class, regardless of age, and of course all classes focus on physical fitness. However, maybe even more important is the focus on personal character traits that directly relate to the program.

“I teach all my students, regardless of age, to have humility, integrity, dignity, and respect.  I won’t stand for any student disrespecting what I have taught him,” Miller said. “Focus, self-control, self-discipline, respect, kindness, and self-confidence are taught in each program.”

“I’m passionate about what really matters in life,” Miller said. “I believe in being kind to others all the time, doing good deeds, helping those who are weak and doing any community service we can do to make a positive impact on our community. One of our main mottos is ‘Lead by Example, Follow by Choice.’”

And come to think of it, every student there displayed this sort of leadership by example. Everyone was friendly, kind, and respectful, and though there might have been a few laughs when I couldn’t do a single pushup on that ball, there were also plenty of pats on the back and words of encouragement. And as soon as that happened, I wanted to go back and try it again. It seemed to me that that’s what it was all about: getting back up off the ground, because inevitably, we all get knocked to the ground, and getting back on the ball, not because we have to, but because we want to. And when we have the help and encouragement of those around us, we follow by choice.


If you’re looking to gain self-confidence, better fitness and well-being, stamina, flexibility, better focus, or maybe you’re looking to improve your overall well-being with a program that will teach you self-discipline and personal integrity, then contact Michael Miller at Miller’s Kenpo Karate Dojo at 443 East Main Street, Suite #1, in Bradford, PA. You can e-mail  Mr. Miller at michael.miller@millersdojo.com or call (814)368-3725.

By: Andrew Cauley