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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on May 14th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 10 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 15, Issue 10

State of the martial art at Cho Chi Zen Karate Studio in Santa Maria


Erin Blakley is a white belt who, as of this photo being taken, has been taking classes with Cho Chi Zen Karate Studio for about three weeks.

Karate is a fairly familiar sport to most people in the United States, thanks to the way it’s been popularized by movies, comic books, and TV shows. However, despite wide awareness of the sport, actually taking a karate class taught by a trained instructor is more rare.

A dojo in Santa Maria called Cho Chi Zen Karate Studio is working to make it more common.

A welcoming, tranquil space with wood flooring and spacious windows, Cho Chi Zen offers a retreat amid the bustle of the surrounding city. A babbling fountain can be heard from the courtyard outside, and the minimalistic décor allows students to focus on their training.

With qualified instructor Mark Gill offering classes six days a week, there’s much more to this martial arts studio than its location. Gill has been honing his Cho Chi Zen skills for around 30 years, and has spent 12 of those years instructing others.

“Karate takes time,” he said. “Anything worth learning takes time.”

He became acquainted with the art of Cho Chi Zen in 1983 in New Orleans, where he trained under the instruction of Mr. Glover, a grandmaster in karate, for six years. Then, after a stint in the Navy, he returned to train once more under Mr. Glover’s guidance. The school closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and that’s when Gill began to make his way west, living everywhere from Houston to Tucson.

Now a third-degree black belt, Gill has brought his talents to the Central Coast in hopes of getting others interested and involved in the art of Cho Chi Zen.

Gill believes in a method of making karate understandable and accessible to people of all ages. He likens Cho Chi Zen to learning a language. Just as a teacher provides students with the proper tools to understand language, Gill equips his pupils with the ability to learn the basics of karate before building from a solid foundation of knowledge.

“It trains the mind on a lot of different levels,” he explained.

Once his students learn a wide repertoire of movements, they have the necessary skills to string these individual motions together and perform a two-person kata.

As Gill explained it, a two-person kata is what separates Cho Chi Zen from other martial art forms.

“The Okinawan karate katas are where we get our individual techniques. They are time-tested, battle-proven self-defense techniques,” he said. “What Cho Chi Zen does is reformulate those into a two-person kata.”

In his more interactive style of teaching karate, trainees learn Cho Chi Zen by constantly practicing on each other. This way, there’s always a moving target to work with, which differentiates it from a style in which students simply perform moves as individuals.

“It adds a tremendous amount of additional training—both mental and physical—because you’re constantly calculating,” Gill said. “We have the body of knowledge contained within these two-person katas. It makes it very unique.”

At Cho Chi Zen in Santa Maria, Gill pairs students up to safely practice with each other, or even with himself.

The katas are different sequences of fighting, consisting of a variety of moves. There are many levels of the katas, which loosely correspond with the belts that pupils can earn for their achievements in mastering different techniques. Each kata has two sides, and students get a chance to learn both. Once they master one side, they have to counter what they just learned by performing the opposing side of the same kata.

Zen, now
See a karate demonstration at the Santa Maria Public Library at 4 p.m. on May 27. The doors will open at 3:30. The grand opening of Cho Chi Zen Karate Studio will take place the following day, May 28. The studio is at 2880 Santa Maria Way, Suite B-1. For more information, call 345-9687.

This reporter was treated to a demonstration of a two-man kata between Gill and student Ben Colon. An ER nurse, Colon decided to give Cho Chi Zen a try when he spotted a sign for the studio.

“I’d been wanting to do karate for years, but I’m really busy,” Colon said. “Some of the other [karate studios] didn’t have the flexibility. One day I just drove by, saw the signs, and walked in. It just so happened that it worked out perfectly.”

Cho Chi Zen is open throughout the day from Monday through Saturday, with hours to provide students with the availability they need regardless of hectic schedules. Some studios are open for only a few hours each day, but Gill hopes to give everyone a chance to have fun and learn valuable life lessons, from young children to older individuals—or “silver belts.”

“It fits my schedule really well. For adults, it works well,” Colon said, confirming that the hours offered at Cho Chi Zen can accommodate even the busiest of schedules.

Colon has been attending classes at Cho Chi Zen since the beginning of April, and is showing enormous improvement. Having already mastered both sides of the first kata and one side of the second kata, it’s clear that the careful instruction offered at Cho Chi Zen can help students see their success coming directly from how hard they work. Colon will even help Gill in a demonstration of the skills people can learn at Cho Chi Zen on May 27 at the Santa Maria Public Library.

The lessons taught at Cho Chi Zen are more than strictly karate related. From understanding empathy to staying concentrated, students are always encouraged to do their best and to get more than just exercise out of each hour-long class.

“It weaves in a lot of positive characteristics for each individual,” Gill said of the sport’s impact on people. “You can choose to have it affect your life however you want.”

And despite the numerous positive impacts that karate has on students, it doesn’t have to be taken too seriously.

“We have fun here,” Gill said. “The kids don’t play here, but they have fun here. We train hard, we practice hard, but we enjoy it.”

Karate’s myriad lessons can also impact people beyond their physical training.

“It’s improving yourself, improving your character, and improving your quality of life through the practice of karate,” Gill said.


Intern Emma Fuhs never underestimates the power of the right belt. Send comments to

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