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RECREATION : Taking Matters Into Hand


Ever see a smiling jogger? Ever have a nightmare that your personal trainer taught you to heel? Going deaf from the rap music playing at your aerobic workout?

Get thee to a dojo.

You'll get exercise, development of mind and body, and a philosophy with emphasis on humility, self-discipline and self-growth. And you'll also learn to defend yourself. It's called karate-do (literally translated: empty-handed).

The three-decade-old West Los Angeles Karate School provides everything except the commercialism and the military atmosphere commonly found at dojos that admit children. This dojo (place of the way) is strictly for grown-ups.

"We have a club atmosphere rather than a formal school," said manager David Heldman. "We don't need push-ups to punish people because we get our own 'push-ups' in our outside world." Heldman takes no salary, the school is nonprofit and black belt members share the teaching duties.

In real life, Heldman is a salesman for a documentary film company, and at the dojo he teaches the beginning class to a group of students whose average age is 48 and whose occupations range from a restaurant builder to a federal judge.

Judge Joseph Reichman of the U.S. District Court is never going to co-star in a Ninja Turtle movie, nor does he plan on using karate in his courtroom. But he is learning this weapon-less style of self-defense as a form of pleasurable exercise.

Up to three years ago, Reichman, 63, was doing a lot of running.

"I came to the conclusion I was hurting myself. I never had that mythical high runners talk about and after 14 years of races and marathons I realized it held no joy for me," he said after an intense one-hour workout.

Reichman recently underwent serious surgery and incorporated what he learned in karate-do in his recovery.

"I used the technique of focusing on the most important element to aid in my recovery," he said. "I know I'll never be a black belt, but I also know that I want to struggle with it anyway and I see myself doing it as long as I can."

Reichman considers himself a quiet person who wouldn't step on an ant if he could avoid it. He fits right in with the other members. There's a friendly, civilized atmosphere. It is not a business. There are no contracts to sign. No one looks or acts threatening--in fact, quite the opposite. There is almost a spiritual feeling in spite of the physical intensity.

According to M. Nakayama in the introduction to his book "Best Karate," if karate is practiced solely as a fighting technique, it is regrettable--the spiritual aspect plays the predominant role.

Although the ancient Okinawan martial art had as its objective to inflict devastating damage on an opponent with one blow of the fist or a single kick, training means training of body and spirit and, according to Nakayama, "one should treat his opponent courteously and with the proper etiquette. It is not enough to fight with all one's power; the real objective in karate-do is to do so for the sake of justice."

Alan Weil, third-degree black belt, or sandan, as it is called in Japanese, uses karate theory in his work as a litigation lawyer.

"Karate is about how we deal with conflict, defending yourself against multiple threats, but the biggest obstacle is internal fear," Weil said. "The Japanese have a saying that Samurai would put their fear on the tips of their swords and carry their fear with them outside--in front of them. It's not that you have no fear, it's that you recognize it as a part of yourself, but it does not stop you from taking action."

Ana Mancia designs clothes for Barbie dolls. She's been studying karate for three years. Her designs for karate martial arts clothes for Barbie's little sister were recently turned down.

"My place of work is very stressful. This is a place for stress to come out in aggression," she said.

Restaurant builder Tom Wetherford, 49, says karate has influenced his life deeply. "The way I walk down the street--I'm aware of everything going on. My lower back pain is gone because I even learned how to walk differently . . . and don't forget we're learning how to kill with one blow, just in case."

The West Los Angeles Karate School is at 11054 West Pico Blvd. (310) 473-6610.

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