The art of Kenpo karate

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Gary Henderson could likely kill an attacker in under 30 seconds if he chose to, but the martial arts teacher's philosophy is to avoid a fight whenever possible.

Henderson has a second-degree black belt in Kenpo karate, a martial art with roots in northern China and the flavor of a street fight in a dark alley.

The connection to Chinese philosophy is apparent in the art form's discipline -- fluid circular movements, grounded stances and the belief that there is no honor in harming another human being. The street-fighting element emerges as a means to decommission an opponent and to move with unflinching speed and power.

Eye strikes, kicks to the knees and unabashed groin grabs make this a particularly strong method of self-defense for women, who might be at a disadvantage when it comes to strength, Henderson explained.

"Even small children can stick their finger in your eye hard enough to ruin your day," Henderson said.

He teaches free karate classes once a week to anyone who wants to learn.

"I want to keep it free for kids," he said. "It's not about the money. I've seen it happen to too many schools, when they get dependent on the money, their standards go down." Schools that rely on that income may advance a student before he or she is qualified in order to generate income, he said.

Henderson works at the Craig Station Power Plant for a living and has taught the classes for 12 years because he loves this form of karate, he said.

Henderson also has studied judo, boxing and tae kwon do, but prefers the hand techniques and practical self-defense aspects of Kenpo.

Henderson said he has never had to use karate to defend himself because the first rule of the art is to use it only as a last resort.

Once, however, when a friend came up behind him and picked him up in a bear hug without warning, Henderson reacted on instinct, he said. He immediately threw his head back knocking heads with his friend, before raking his hand upward in a painful groin grab. The friend doubled over and dropped him in surprise.

Still, that's really not his style. The ideal response to a potential conflict, he said, is to walk away.

Henderson describes Kenpo as "a dying art form."

"I don't want my art to die with me," he said.

But just because it's free and the instructor enjoys himself, doesn't mean Kenpo is easy. Of his hundreds of students, Henderson estimates he's had only one, David Stene, who achieved a black belt --and that took 10 years.

"What I like about it is it's a lifestyle and it's good exercise to teach discipline and self-control," Stene said. "I enjoy the exercise part of it too."

Stene started coming to classes with his children. Eventually they dropped out, but he kept going. Now he helps Henderson with the classes. He's witnessed students overcome physical barriers and walk out the door with improved attitudes. Stene also noticed changes in himself from the practice.

"It's helped me to deal with people a little bit differently. I've got more self-confidence," Stene said, adding that as a father he is less domineering.

Henderson said he is always learning and changing, even after 24 years of martial arts training.

"I have a lot more respect for life. Especially when in martial arts you see how fragile it is. You can see how bad you can hurt people and how fast," Henderson said.

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