Tillery’s martial arts lessons transform students’ lives

Pictured here are the Ken Zen Ichi students striking a classic martial art pose while Kyoshi Tillery patiently instructs and corrects their stances. The class takes place in the AFC every day. / Courtesy of Duncan Aronson

To some, martial arts may seem like a form of violent combat. Vassar’s Ken Zen Ichi martial arts lessons subvert such stereotypes. Not only is Ken Zen Ichi a different type of martial arts, Kyoshi (master teacher) Norman Tillery has also added to it his personal touch. This is true in two senses: From a strictly technical standpoint, the tactics for combat, the practice methods and the philosophy are practical and unique. From a more general standpoint, Tillery’s classes embrace children’s holistic development, in terms of both self-betterment and the betterment of those around them and their communities.

Tillery’s classes are open to Vassar students and the greater Poughkeepsie community. They are held daily in the Multi-Purpose Room of the Athletics and Fitness Center. Class levels range from beginner to black-belt.

On his path to becoming a black belt holder in both the Wado-Ryu and Ken Zen Ichi types of karate, Tillery undertook traditional practices and methods that were considered standard over two decades ago. When he started his dojo, Tillery had to adjust these traditional practices to make his craft suitable for the newer generation. This was done partly to make practicing karate easier and partly because Tillery’s core philosophy is application-based.

Some of Tillery’s fighting techniques reflect this approach. As one of the sensei explained, while some martial arts exclude certain types of fighting, Ken Zen Ichi includes ground-grappling (hand-to-hand combat at a non-standing position) because in a martial arts fight or even a real fight, avoiding it is unlikely. Tillery also demonstrated how tweaking the traditional punches and kicks, like a shoulder movement on a kick, generates more power, and is therefore more effective. All of his students carry their own walking canes that Tillery has devised for use as a deceptive weapon.

Tillery takes his application-based approach a step further by discussing the real-life implementations of karate with his students. He teaches his students that running away from a fight is always the best option and has made sparring completely optional at all stages. He even runs shooter drills which prepare students in the case of a school shooting.

The most incredible thing about Tillery’s Ken Zen Ichi is his holistic nurturing approach, which goes beyond the realm of the martial art. Students must bring their school report cards to prove they are passing all of their classes to attend his lessons and have to perform community service to become a black belt. The students also keep a separate Ken Zen Ichi report card.

Tillery and his assistant sensei also teach skills, processes and attitudes important to all endeavors. Two of the keys to the practice are reflection and communication. After each iteration of a routine or a new skill, students are encouraged to reflect on their learning processes until doing so becomes natural to them. Classes often end with the students and sensei sitting in a large circle led by Tillery. He engages the whole group in thoughtful dialogues—he may ask for a “feeling word,” or something that they learned in class that day.

Discipline and organization are also key to the students’ success. Each student’s binder contains a rigorously detailed progress tracker. Every move is broken down into constituent skills and there is a practice log for recording progress and skills learned. Students are also expected to practice outside of class and show up to class with the right attitude—even the small children, who may struggle to focus their attention, are held to the same standard. At the end of one class, Tillery explained to his students the difference between imposed discipline and self-discipline. “Imposed discipline is when your parents or somebody has to tell you to do something and you do it. We want to have self-discipline. Nobody has to tell you what to do because you’re responsible. If someone has to tell you to do something, they should only have to tell you once.”

Tillery and his sensei can be tough on the students for the sake of training and to make them grow stronger. During a class, a brown belt student practiced his punches with Tillery. Despite the student being clearly exhausted, their practice continued on about five or six times before the pair finally stopped. Tillery also told the story of a brown belt who claimed that women were weaker than men. For his black belt test, Tillery matched him up against a woman. “And she cleaned him up. He knew I had done it intentionally and he learned humility and open-mindedness.”

Tillery’s integral role cannot be overstated. One of his former students, Gail Wilson put it best: “I never met anyone more committed and dedicated to what he believes. Norman has a way of transferring that under his tutelage. I believe he has a gift.” (Poughkeepsie Journal, “‘Kyoshi’ means caring to martial arts instructor,” 02.17.2000).

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