Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 25
A local jiu-jitsu instructor tackled his PTSD demons with martial arts
BY AARON SALAZAR
Chris Ruiz was on vacation at Disneyland when he realized he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 2005, the former Marine was almost asleep in his hotel when he heard the thud of exploding fireworks. He tried to calm himself, but his heart was racing, and when the grand finale boomed, he sat straight up and was covered in sweat.
Disneyland’s noisy fireworks celebration had triggered memories leftover from his two deployments in the Iraq war.
“When I went through combat, my training took over,” he said. “Once you get out of it, you hear a bang and you can’t react like you used to.”
After his trip to Anaheim, Ruiz got evaluated and was diagnosed with PTSD. He was stationed in San Diego at the time and was living there with his wife, Erin. Ruiz said his symptoms included mood swings, a short temper, and sleepless nights.
Hesitant to talk to anyone and afraid of falling into the hazards of alcohol or drug addiction, he was inspired to do something about his condition while watching a mixed martial arts fight on TV.
“I can do that,” he told himself.
Now, nearly a decade later, the 33-year-old brown belt owns and operates the Inner Strength Martial Arts Academy (ISMAA) in the Santa Maria Town Center Mall.
“Jiu-jitsu really helped me relax,” he said. “It allowed me to sleep.”
The Santa Maria native began his training at the San Diego Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy under the instruction of Paulo Augusto, who continues to teach Ruiz and other former Marines as well.
“Coming to a school with a family environment and a lot of camaraderie really helps former Marines come out of PTSD,” Augusto said. “I believe jiu-jitsu helps, because they keep coming back.”
Founded in 2012, the Santa Maria martial arts facility offers five different programs Monday through Friday, and trains more than 60 students whose ages range from 5 years old to those in their late 50s.
“It’s a family environment,” said Carolyn Silva, whose 5-year-old son attends tae kwon do classes. “I feel like my son is making bonds that will last a lifetime.”
Along with the exercise that comes from practicing jiu-jistsu, having a family atmosphere is what helped other veterans at ISMAA tackle their PTSD, Ruiz said.
Daniel Villalobos, 34, trains with Ruiz and is also a former Marine who served a deployment in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.
Ruiz and Villalobos are cousins and have been training together for more than two years. Villalobos was also diagnosed with PTSD.
As many as 20 out of 100 veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website.
“This is my therapy,” Villalobos said. “Anybody I talk to with PTSD, I tell them to give it a try.”
Villalobos also enrolled his three kids in the academy, and his wife Julie practices kickboxing.
“The mats are the best way for him to relieve the tension,” she said. “He enjoys it so much, he’s been able to get everybody involved.”
Three days a week, Ruiz teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Wearing the heavy cloth uniform, called a gi, he and his students hit the mat to practice putting their opponents into submission holds while maneuvering themselves out of one.
Passing shoppers can look through the glass wall that faces the mall’s center and see students tumbling across the large, open studio and hear the echo of hands and feet slapping against the mat.
On Aug. 9, Ruiz and five of his students competed in the North American Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s 10th Annual North American Tournament at CSU Dominguez Hills.
Every one of his students placed, and Sergio Lopez took first in his category, which was no gi white belt. Ruiz brought back the bronze in the brown belt middleweight category.
Ruiz started teaching jiu-jitsu in San Diego. When he and his wife moved back to Santa Maria, he taught out of a student’s garage with only a handful of trainees. It grew from there into its current location and is continuing to grow.
On Aug. 20, the Santa Maria Planning Commission approved Ruiz’s conditional use permit for a 3,800-square-foot studio located at 2337 A Street in Santa Maria.
“To see him do so well is awesome,” said John Nelson, who has been Ruiz’s student since the garage days. “To know this all had roots in my garage is an amazing feeling.”
Ruiz’s next moves are to renew his business license and have a building inspector sign off on the new location. He plans to move into and have his new studio off the ground by the end of September.
Ruiz offers a 20 percent discount for military personnel, veterans, police officers, fire fighters and medical personnel.
“I’m always trying to get them in because I’d rather help out my brothers- and sisters-in-arms than see them deteriorate because of the demons,” he said.
Contact Staff Writer Aaron Salazar at email@example.com.