Not only is Sam Widerschein a black belt in five-animal kung fu, he’s something of a martial arts historian, too.
“As far as we know historically, Shaolin kung fu was the first organized martial arts system developed by mankind,” he said. “From that sprung the different martial arts you see, like karate and tae kwon do.”
Now, Widerschein is teaching kung fu at The J. His class joins kung fu with tae kwon do, which is already taught here.
The fighting style is completely different, he said.
“Tae kwon do is what’s considered a hard style. For example, if someone is to punch at you with tae kwon do, you would strike to make it kind of hurt. In kung fu, we’re very circular, what’s known as a soft style. We like to take that energy and redirect it. So rather than strike, we may parry that, use that energy and circle back with a strike.”
A Louisville native, Widerschein has been studying kung fu since college – about 18 years.
“Growing up, we were fairly poor and so one of the few TV channels we really got was Black Belt Theater, you know, the old chopsocky movies where the mouth and the words don’t match,” he said. “I always thought these guys were almost magical.”
He was never able to find a school that taught the type of kung fu he was interested in, five-animal Shaolin kung fu. When he went to college, his friend found a kung fu class and excitedly told Widerschein about it.
He was hooked. He offered the teacher money for the first three months of classes, all the money he had at the time.
The teacher told him to try a free class first, to make sure he liked it. But Widerschein refused. He was 100 percent sure of what he wanted.
Motivated to learn, Widerschein trained for hours each day.
“There was a lot of sacrifice in there,” he said. “You know, in college I didn’t get to party as much and stuff like that, but it was all totally worth it to me because I love doing it so much.”
Five-animal kung fu is based on the virtues and moves of animals: the tiger, leopard, snake, crane and dragon. There is also a sixth, the mantis, which Widerschein also teaches. When fighting with kung fu, one switches between animals, depending on the situation.
“If someone big is attacking me, I want to get in as close to them as possible so I might be more inclined to be start out using mantis,” he said. “If I’m being attacked by someone shorter than me, then I’ll start with the crane because I’m long, so I can strike and keep you at bay.”
Widerschein demonstrated some of the moves with me. It was unlike anything I’ve ever done. He showed me a tiger stance, with my fingers curled up like a cat’s paw, and we did some high kicks, which I didn’t think I could do.
But I did.
Much of what we did required balance, which I wasn’t really prepared for. Though we didn’t do a full workout (or actual fighting), I quickly broke a sweat.
A great thing about martial arts, Widerschein said, is how it builds strength and speed at the same time.
“If I’m in the gym working out and I want to get stronger, I’m lifting heavy weights,” he said. “If I want to get faster, it could be lighter weights and tons of repetition. It’s one of the rare things that you can focus on both at the same time. It’s great for losing weight and great for balance.”
Widerschein also taught me some basic tai chi moves, which he will teach at The J. Frequently associated with old people in a park practicing slow, graceful moves, tai chi is actually an ancient martial art. Its moves are fighting moves; they’re just slowed down to focus on control and centering.
A psychiatric hospital nurse, Widerschein teaches tai chi as mental health therapy for those in addiction recovery.
“It’s really rewarding when you’re dealing with addiction issues,” he said. “The patient’s problems are with those quick, emotional, rash decisions: ‘I saw the bar that I used to drink at, and now I’m triggered. I’m going to go to the liquor store.’ With tai chi, you’ll be able to lower your heart rate, lower your respiratory rate, lower your blood pressure, refocusing. It gives you that ability to be able to take a step back. It kind of teaches you to take the emotion out of it.”
Want to join?
Widerschein’s classes begin Feb. 4 and will be offered Mondays and Wednesdays. Tai Chi is at 6:45-7:45 p.m., and kung fu is 8-9 p.m. The class cost is $100 a month for J members and $120 for non-members. He also offers one-on-one instruction. visit jewishlouisville.org/the-j/health-wellness/sports/kung-fu-tai-chi/ for details.