AN INTERVIEW WITH
MANNY SAAVEDRA HANSHI
AN INSTRUCTOR’S INSTRUCTOR, A TEACHER’S TEACHER
By William Rivera Shihan
Edited by Lydia Alicea
The precocious one asked:
“How would you compare the doctors who treated you to a martial arts instructor?”
“For a doctor and a martial arts instructor, it is about trust in their integrity, knowledge, and character.”
The precocious one added:
“Also, you trust they will never stop learning. For the doctor it is about the latest on diseases and treatments, and for the martial arts instructor it is about teaching their art in a changing world that has new threats, to students with different strengths.
Can you name an instructor with these qualities?”
“Yes, Manny Saavedra Hanshi.”
Hello and welcome to Martialforce.com. My name is William Rivera, a Yudansha and student of Eddie Morales Shihan. (The precocious one is Rachel, daughter of our editor Lydia. She is 15, an honor student, and a martial artist.)
He had run the marathon, sparred endless rounds, and now was not able to lift his knee without feeling fatigued. It was a year of pain.
Two doctors literally gave him his life back. It does not matter whether he had the sniffles or a major disease, For Dr. Ayyad and Dr. Gottlieb; the privilege to take care of a person is a responsibility, prepared with knowledge and competence.
When a student comes into the dojo to learn the martial arts it is about trust. Whether you are a parent bringing your children, a student wanting to prepare for tournament competition or for another reason, you want to know that the school you have entered and the instructor is the right place for you.
This interview presents Manny Saavedra Hanshi. A philosopher, teacher and a student, Saavedra Sensei is also a leader in the world of martial arts.
It is not because he is head of a worldwide organization, or that he calls himself one. He is a leader because of the path he chose, to become a “Teacher.” It is a never-ending journey, rooted in selfless service to the martial arts.
Bottom line, it is about integrity, knowledge, and character.
Manny Saavedra Hanshi is the founder of “World Sansei“ Kokusai Koryu Goju-Ryu Karatedo (International Old Style Karatedo Goju Association) it was formed in 1979 as the World Sansei Goju-Ryu Karate and Kobudo Organization
The “World Sansei” Kokusai Koryu Goju-Ryu Karatedo is about students becoming leaders, instructors being role models and leaders who never forget they are both.
Manny Saavedra Hanshi I can talk about his accomplishments, but than we would never get to the interview.
As an introduction to Manny Saavedra I give you some words from a Martial Artist considered one of the pioneers of Karate in Puerto Rico one of the best fighters to come out of the Caribbean.
“Let us talk about a great man, Manny Saavedra Hanshi. It was in 1984, during the first 2 or 3 tournaments I participated in that I first met Saavedra.I was impressed by the way he conducted himself, his charisma and how everyone in the karate circuit showed him respect.
In speaking to him, I recognized the depth of his knowledge of Goju Ryu and his views on its’ direction in the United States. To me and for others as well, Manny is a sensei, but, more than that, he is a friend.
We always believe in developing leaders among our students and not blind followers. It is why the Sansei movement has growth and became what it is today. One day, while visiting our dojo in Puerto Rico, he honored my request to perform Chinese Kururunfa Kata. There were about 15 black belts present, and as they watched Hanshi Saavedra's performance, they were in awe. Since that day, I decided to make that kata my own.”
Carlos H. Montalvo Hanshi
Circa 1999 FIU Graduating Class
M.Saavedra: “Yes, I was born in 1951, on an air force base in Cuba, called, “La Cayuga.” My father, Manuel Saavedra Sr. was in the air force. We moved in 1959 to the United States.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Where did your family settle in the U.S.?
M.Saavedra: “We moved to New York City, on 48th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue, the area known as Hell’s Kitchen.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: When and how were you introduced to the martial arts?
M.Saavedra: “It was during the 1960’s. My brother, Alex Saavedra (9 years old), and my cousin, Frank Garcia (8 years old), were studying Karate, Jujitsu and Judo at the American Dojo in Queens, New York. I was 13 years old at the time and thought of myself as a tough gang member who did not think he needed the martial arts to fight. Looking back, I realized how wrong I was.
When my family moved to Union City, New Jersey, Alex began to practice Goju-Ryu Karate under Ed Verycken Sensei. As he developed and advanced to Black Belt, I saw a change in him that appealed to me. For the first time, I began to consider the martial arts for myself. With my decision made, I began my training in Goju-Ryu under the guidance of Alex.
Goju-Ryu became a passion for me. I feel it is the most complete system in terms of aesthetics, balance and philosophy, incorporating the hard and soft elements of the martial arts and in life. Today, Alex and Frank are members of the Board of Directors of my organization.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: How would you describe your first karate class?
M.Saavedra: “It was highly structured. I was not interested in learning the roots of the art, but rather drawn towards the Kumite (sparring) aspect.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: You trained under the legendary Grand Master Peter Urban, founder of American Goju-Ryu Karate. Please discuss this important direction in your martial arts career and your perception of Master Urban from that period.
M.Saavedra: “I was 18 years old and a green belt when I met Master Urban during an event at The Manhattan Center in New York City. Urban Sensei was the center referee in the match, which I won. At the end of the event, he asked my brother Alex to have me join him at the Shanghai Dojo on Crosby Street.
A defining moment in my life was in front of me when I became a student of Master Urban. His influence changed the direction of my art. I earned my black belt in Goju-Ryu and later taught with Master Urban.
He was an extremely charismatic individual who exuded total confidence and demanded complete respect. He exposed everyone, students and teachers to his repertoire of views and theory: one-line statements of thought, straightforward yet powerful in logic and truth. Austere and very tough, Master Urban was an instructor’s instructor. Today, I continue to employ many of his teaching methods.
Master Urban was an artist of many facets and talent. For me, his forte was in his teaching methods and the ability to move and inspire his students to greatness, which made us leaders, and not followers. For this I owe him so much.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What was the training like, the kumite, the kata?
M.Saavedra: “The emphasis of the kihon (basics), ido (movement), bunkai (breakdown, analysis), were geared towards self-defense and tournament tactics.
Kumite was extremely hard. We did not use any safety gear and remarkably, there were few injuries. The karateka had excellent technique and control.
The de-emphasis of kata was evident in the training hall in favor of kumite many times. When I speak of this, I mean the deeper understanding of kata. The kata that Master Urban taught were his interpretation of the Japanese lineage system.
I will say this, watching Master Urban perform Sanchin was an amazing sight, strong, elegant, and truly inspirational.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What was it like when you were at the kyu (pre-black belt) ranks the rise the testing?
M.Saavedra: “I found some levels were easier than others. Urban was known to skip certain levels for selected students. He promoted me from green belt to brown belt.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Please tell me about your Shodan promotion.
M.Saavedra: “I tested with Urban Sensei mostly in kumite. After a grueling session, I was promoted to Shodan.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Was the training you received comparable to the Japanese style of Goju-Ryu?
M.Saavedra: “Absolutely not! Master Urban created a version, an interpretation of the Japanese Goju-Ryu system, which he learned in Japan. What I practice and teach is not Japanese Goju-Ryu but rather Okinawan based Goju-Ryu.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Where was your first dojo?
M.Saavedra: “In the early 1970’s I opened the United Goju Dojo in Corona, Queens New York.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What was your association with Grand Master Frank Ruiz (founder of Nisei Goju-Ryu)?
M.Saavedra: “I was 21 years old when I met Ruiz Sensei; it was at the Williams Street dojo. We developed a strong friendship he was my mentor. Ruiz Sensei encouraged me to form my own association.
I remember as he lay in his hospital bed, having his legs amputated from complications due to diabetes. He displayed no fear, no perceptual weakness whatsoever. He was truly a man’s man.
I was by his side, along with a handful of others when he passed away. Ruiz Sensei made an impression on me that will last a lifetime. I feel deeply honored to have known him personally and professionally.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Was the formation of Sansei Goju-Ryu Karate already your work in progress when you moved to South Florida?
M.Saavedra: “No that actually evolved later on over time. My primary focus as an instructor was to direct my students to develop deeper levels of understanding, commitment and maturity of their art and as individuals.
Out of this need, I realized that in order to achieve it, the formation and standardization of a system was essential. I also believed (and still do) that values make a difference in how individuals behave inside organizations and how they view themselves, their colleagues, as well as their leaders. People expect their leaders to stand for “something”, to have credibility and courage for their convictions. I felt that the first step towards establishing credibility as a leader was to clarify the values for what the art represented to the individual.
I wanted my students to look upon the art as a treasure and to embrace its’ deeper meanings. Hence, laying the groundwork for the formation of World Sansei Goju-Ryu Karate and the Kobudo Organization was the order.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: How does Sansei differ from other Goju-Ryu based styles such as the USA, Nisei, or Chinese?
M.Saavedra: “Sansei is a system which evolved from the USA Goju-Ryu system to an Okinawan-based karate system that incorporates eastern and western methodologies. Sansei emphasizes order and structure.
The aim of our training is to bring the student to a level where he or she develops leadership qualities, to become a role model that exemplifies loyalty, honesty, a strong work ethic, strong family ties and community involvement. Your art must go beyond just learning the basics; your art should make you a better person in life.
Sansei strongly supports the learning process. Most folks do not consciously consider how one’s culture and language effects behavior. Learning to be aware of their influences on others as well as oneself is part of the study of the martial arts.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Do you consider yourself a traditionalist?
M.Saavedra: “Goju-Ryu Karate is an art deeply rooted in tradition. A modern traditionalist takes what he has learned from the instruction he/she received, and applies it, today. It is tradition in modern times. A martial artist who received Instruction 20-30 years ago, is a traditionalist so long as the art holds true from that instructor, and its’ values have not been compromised. I regard myself as a modern traditionalist. It is difficult to quantify what is tradition, and it is sometimes contingent upon the individual’s view of the tradition itself. I feel many people are enslaved by this term because they are often jockeying for position to legitimize them as appearing closer to the founders. I feel a modern traditionalist seeks to become a better human being, period.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: How did your career as a teacher come about?
M.Saavedra: “Early on in my training I felt a desire to teach this discipline to others. I have a genuine love for teaching as well as a deep devotion to the art. I felt the two became one influence determining the path I have chosen.
I have accepted the responsibility to develop leadership within the organization and other skills necessary to improve the quality of the practitioner in the generations to come. This requires much effort and self-discipline. I believe learning to care for and lead others, is the way to develop character and make life meaningful.
“The Teach Format” that is the basis for World Sansei Goju-Ryu Karate and Kobudo Organization. It has been a life long work in progress.”
“Knowledge and information results from the work of people before us and becomes an obligation to those who come after. Understanding and accepting this develops a strong respect towards our seniors and responsibility to future generations.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Master Saavedra, you have taught credit-based courses in the martial arts at universities in New York and Florida. Does your teaching include the physical aspects of the art?
M.Saavedra: “I have developed in my curriculum, a holistic approach to the martial arts, so that it does include the physical as well as the historical aspects.
My first teaching assignment was at Florida International University (FIU). Although I did work for the City College of New York, FIU granted me the opportunity to create a martial arts program, encompassing lecture classes and physical education credit. I believe that in order to be productive individuals, we must be “whole”; with that in mind, I introduced an advanced level lecture class called, “Comprehensive Analysis of The Martial Arts”.
I consider karate-do as being an “education” that transcends the physical aspects of other disciplines and sports. From 1995 to 2001, I was fortunate to have the largest karate program of any universities, with 700 credit hours per semester. It was an intense schedule but my passion to teach was the driving force for its success. I continue to teach at FIU here in Florida.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Do you feel kata has relevance to self-defense, or is it what some have referred to as just dance?
M.Saavedra: “Not understanding the importance of kata comes from improper teaching and lack of comprehension of its language. Kata contains many theoretical and abstract movements, which is not always easy to figure out without proper guidance. The application of its techniques have evolved from and experienced in actual struggles. Kata has been improved and advanced into the forms that we practice today.
The old masters examined the combative techniques between creatures, the makeup of the human body and its relation to combat, which considers factors such as blood circulation, and the vulnerability of the vital points in relation to time of day. All these fundamentals are incorporated into Kata making it a complete study in self-defense.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Is there controversy over the application of kata?
M.Saavedra: “In the circles I am associated with, there is no controversy. Most of the Karateka I am involved with understand the meaning of Kata at every level.”
“I call it education and research. I have learned not to debate, rather acquire a personal understanding as one matures in Karate-do. Only through practice, practice will these things, which when outlined become obvious. There is no learning of such things; they must be performed thousands of times and thoroughly experienced on an individual basis.”
Top left to right: Stanley Foodman Sensei, Charlie Gonzalez Sensei, Frank Garcia Sensei, Joe Anon Sensei, Tony Palmore Sensei. Kneeling to the right Claudio Goldstein Sensei, Manny Saavedra Sensei, to the left Marco Herzog Sensei
MARTIALFORCE.COM: How important is the study of Bunkai? At what level do you begin teaching it?
M.Saavedra: “Bunkai is the essence of Kata. It is our responsibility as sensei to interpret it for our students.
I break down the levels into five insights:
Level 1: Is the simplest to understand, always singular in range, comprised of striking, blocking and kicking. Strength and speed along with emotional involvement occur gradually.
Level 2: This level moves towards basic combinations. Students begin to see more clearly as they become plural in scope. Techniques start to link together as you develop continuity. They become stronger and quicker, but although your understanding is developing, one tends to still be dangerous and aggressive.
Level 3: The focus is advancing on compound combinations. Himitsu, or the unseen movements, become more apparent as they flow with ease and the student feels more secure in his understanding.
Level 4: This level entails internal and external awareness. As personal perception and development increases so does confidence.
Level 5: Here, one is concerned with the internal materialization and the development of “secret” knowledge. You experience wholeness, chi-flow, diet and true spiritual wisdom. Bunkai performed at the spiritual level requires at least ten years of steadfast training within the kata. Unconscious abilities on various levels become obvious beyond the physical realm.
Levels 1-3 can be taught, whereas 4 and 5 must be experienced.”
Manny Saavedra Hanshi and Santa Rivera Sensei
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What are the qualities of Bunkai and Kata?
M.Saavedra: “When you learn to type, you sit in front of the typewriter your fingers move to the assigned keys as taught. With experience, your fingers learn to respond faster and faster.
I believe that the true meaning and spirit of Karate is imbedded in Kata, and only through practice can you understand them. This is very important for all students to understand, that you cannot arrive there unless you practice Kata correctly.
Through steadfast repetition, techniques become reflex action; and, Kata can be practiced alone, anytime and anywhere.
When you are moved by the Kata attention is drawn so deeply within that inner-confusion gradually dissolves to where it no longer exists. By regulating the flow of air from within the body and synchronizing it with muscular expansion and contraction, the Kata becomes a powerful vehicle of introspection. Internal thought and external performance become harmonized.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What is your favorite Kata?
M.Saavedra: “When I was younger I thoroughly enjoyed performing Kururunfa, but today, I have no favorites, I love them all.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Do you feel Kumite is necessary in the study of karate?
M.Saavedra: “Free sparring, or Jiyu Kumite, is a relatively new addition to karate. It was developed in Japan during the 1930’s and is mainly used as the sports component of the art.
Kumite as we know it today has some very real benefits to consider for realistic self-defense experiences in particular. Sparring under controlled conditions is the closest thing to real combat. A constant change of fighting partners allows you the opportunity to try your techniques under a variety of circumstances. Techniques should be thrown effectively but with good self-control to avoid serous injury.
Kumite has its place within the dojo but only in terms of teaching proper technique and timing, although there is an ever growing number of fighting arts that are now mainstream.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: How would you respond to the opinion that the system of Goju-Ryu taught by Grand Master Urban was not a “complete” art, that he himself did not learn the full style of Goju-Ryu and in turn taught his students an art that is lacking in the fundamentals essential to a true “traditional” art?
M.Saavedra: I believe that all the Goju-Ryu systems are part of its’ living tree of thought, the way of soft and hard philosophy. There are some who say that much of the Goju-Ryu systems around the world are the true or dominant system, however, the strength of Goju-Ryu Karate lies in its’ diversity, its’ modernization and its’ adversity, It is a principle of dual reality, all systems must exist and coexist in order for one to exist.
Goju-Ryu Karate has been split into many factions, not all of who see eye to eye, however, in all the Goju-Ryu systems we are taught to block soft and hit hard.
I believe that our goals are the same, that the Tao (way) does not deny some of the differences inherent in life nor in Goju-Ryu. Therein lies the key to achieving harmony within oneself.
Having said that, I do believe Master Urban gave us a complete system. It has heightened my awareness, taught me responsibility and made me understand the human potential. There are few individuals who came from this reality and whom have gone back to the rudiments and traditions of authentic Goju-Ryu.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What advice would you give a senior student confronted with the politics of an organization?
M.Saavedra: “Human behavior has its negative side, envy, jealousy. I have a rock on my desk with the following words edged in: “Real Leaders Are Ordinary People, With Extraordinary Determination”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: Compare the level of training you received when you began, to the training of today, here in the U.S.
M.Saavedra: “Training is not exactly what it used to be, it was brutal. Today litigation is the reality, which dictates the practices of training.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What are your thoughts on tournament competition in the martial arts today?
M.Saavedra: “Student participation in tournaments must be conducted in a manner that reflects positively on the dojo and the organization. We can use tournaments as an extension of the dojo as a way to develop proper behavior. It should always afford the opportunity for martial artists to meet and exchange ideas in a place where rank, and time is respected, cleanliness exists and order rules.
The significance of competition lies not in winning but in establishing friendships, good sportsmanship and developing a sound mind and body. However, if an event does not aspire to these higher levels then it can be detrimental to the essence of karate.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: What makes an instructor, a true instructor?
M.Saavedra: “I feel that the best Karate instructor is one that has seen all his weaknesses, and has insight into yours. Goju-Ryu is an art of expression through technique and movement at its most personal level. A good instructor assesses your qualities and needs and finds the best way for you. A fine teacher filled with natural awareness can be an inspiration, and can communicate useful life lessons through lectures and movement not just on skills, but also on the fundamental principles.
A good instructor should address intelligently and clearly, so that students understand, He should comprehend the body by showing how the muscles, bones and nerves work and interact, how something should feel if done properly.
Another quality of a good instructor is the ability to communicate the principles of life through their teachings; I have been on the dojo floor 30 years and have seen teachers with dark reflections,
Most important, an instructor never, ever stops learning,”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: You incorporate Qigong in your style, how did you learn it?
M.Saavedra: “I was fortunate to have met a gentleman, named Elham Karabi, an acupuncturist and a doctor of oriental medicine. We were both attending City College in New York and became good friends. He was a man of great insight and knowledge, and I learned many things from him.
I teach Qigong theory in three levels:
Level 1: Is to increase the power and efficiency of the muscles, ligaments and tendons.
Level 2: Is to understand the body and the science of where to attack and where to hit to disturb the flow of chi in an opponent.
Level 3: Is to develop a higher sense of being and health so one can reach spiritual balance.
This training is imperative to the understanding of Karate and its higher levels of what we do. Qigong teaches us balance, how to regulate our bodies and spirit, heal us and find our center. It is about connecting us with the energy within called Chi. I feel that many instructors are missing the real essence of what they are teaching.
It is hard to let go of ego and learn properly”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: In closing, please tell us what your organization means to you as a person and as a martial artist.
M.Saavedra: “Every martial artist begins his or her path never knowing where it will take them, Just like life, it develops like a tree with roots that take hold, a trunk as its’ base securing it firmly down and branches growing outward, extending as far as they can, reaching upward.
For me, Kokusai Koryu Gojukai Karatedo grew as a branch, an extension, nurtured with the passion in the art, representing the culmination of life long experiences and knowledge gained, as an individual and a martial artist.
It continues to expand with dojo worldwide because of our leadership, strength and diversity, I am extremely proud of our organization.
We hold strong to our goals: to heighten our awareness, emphasize our responsibility to community and families, teach the importance of work ethic, and produce leaders, not followers.
“Now we ask, is there a better way? The answer lies within our commitment to follow the lessons, techniques, and philosophy of the men who created this art.”
MARTIALFORCE.COM: The board of the “World Sansei” Kokusai Koryu Gojukai Karetedo consist of renowned martial artist: Stanley Foodman Sensei, Charlie Gonzalez Sensei, Frank Garcia Sensei, Joe Anon Sensei, Tony Palmore Sensei, Lisa Gaylord, Sensei, Ozzie Alvarez Sensei, Alex Saavedra, Sensei, and Allesandro Ashanti Sensei.
Integrity, Knowledge, and Character
The Association Website is: http://www.koryugojukai.com
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