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Comfort in Karate - Self Defense and Wellness Center

04/11/2023 07:38PM ● By SARAH PAQUITTE
It’s not even 8 AM on a Sunday, and I have just picked up my bleary-eyed preteen from Villari’s  Vermont, our karate dojo, where he has spent the past 24 hours with a group of tweens and teen leaders in our martial arts community. He’s happily (and groggily) recounting their team building activities, the work they did on an activity book for our youngest students, how they’re planning their next fundraiser for the dojo’s nonprofit, and the fun they had playing games and watching movies in sleeping bags piled up on exercise mats on the dojo floor.


I catch his smile in the rear view mirror as I pull onto Williston Road - remarkably empty and sparkling in the morning sun.

How did we get here? To this place where my eleven year old son and I are black belts? Where he is learning to be a leader and early mornings full of corralling kids into lines to practice kicks and punches is not just our norm, but one of the highlights of our week?


Ten years ago, I was told I’d never play sports again after a hip surgery that was marginally successful at best. After that, I spent years rebuilding my strength and ability to get through the day without being ruled by pain. But when my eldest son, who was five at the time, was struggling with classmates pushing and hitting him on the playground, I knew I had to do something to bolster his confidence and imbue him with boundaries and respect for himself as well as others.

So I turned to martial arts—way outside my comfort zone, and with no knowledge of how profoundly our lives were about to change.


 Inside those doors, I found a community I didn’t even know I was missing. I found balance in both mental and physical health. I found the courage to overcome my fears and insecurities. I found great workouts, and greater friendships. Now, every Saturday, my two sons and I pile into the car and take the familiar route to the dojo (though I’m beginning to suspect my car has done it enough times to autopilot the way). Loaded with sparring gear, uniforms, and water bottles, we traipse inside through the entryway piled with shoes from teeny 4-year-olds to adults topping six feet, through the lobby where a sibling invariably is working on their student handbook while waiting for their class to start, and out onto our training floor.


My boys immediately drop their gear and join their peers, practicing and warming up. Class is being led by a handful of teenagers, kids who you’d swear are the most well-adjusted, wonderful children on the planet. You’d be wrong. They’re kids, they’re totally normal, full of hormones and apathy, insecurities, and struggles in school. But at the dojo, they’re leaders and mentors, ushered through growing pains to become role models and helpers to younger students.

“The greatest reward is seeing how they grow and become more mature and professional. From distracted little kids twirling in circles, to me being able to rely on them at a moment’s notice,” says 8th Degree Black Belt and Chief Master Instructor Darrel Duffy. He and his partner, 10th Degree Black Belt Laurie Shover, have over 70 years of combined teaching experience in martial arts. “The leadership students’ confidence, peer to peer mentoring, communication skills, and understanding that as much as we all may be different from each other, we can speak to each other with kindness as we lead,” is a hallmark of the dojo’s leadership program, says Master Duffy.


Classes rotate, and the next group comes in, and now it’s the teens’ turn. Most of the class is also in the leadership program, which is an optional supplement to their training.
I love watching them become the person martial arts nurtures in them. Strength takes
root, confidence grows, and they bloom into young adults who are assets to society. “As a martial arts instructor for 27 years, a father, and a community member, I could not be more proud of these kids for the hard work and dedication they put into it. They are not perfect, they make mistakes, and that’s okay. They are human and they know that they’re allowed to be all those things.”


It’s that grace and acceptance that underlies all of the training at the dojo that makes it my home away from home. Because, let’s be honest, our world is a juggling act caught in the crush of the day to day: work, errands and chores set to the soundtrack of ringing phones, texts and emails pouring in, coffee slugged down, and long nights just trying to stay afloat. But the dojo offsets all of that, just by being.


There’s a sort of comforting ritual in sliding into my uniform and tying on my belt, a routinely feeling of peace in sitting and meditating before and after class. My mind immediately calms and focuses the moment I step inside the dojo.

This is where anything is possible. This is where I’m my truest self. This is where my people are— my children grow. Where we find health and stability, support and strength. This is so much more than kicks and punches and cliched ideas of self defense.

This is martial arts.

Villari’s Self Defense and Wellness Center
15 Palmer Court
South Burlington, Vt 05403 

(802) 864-0844 

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