Becoming a better person through martial arts |

Becoming a better person through martial arts

Evan Zislis
Life. Simplified.

I’m an efficient guy, so when I expend effort and energy I like to double up on results. That means I tend to look for simple methods that leverage benefits in many areas of life. After a debilitating on-the-job neck injury that culminated in the loss of employment at the end of 2011, I had to rest, recover and rebuild — everything. Repairing my body, starting a new business, restoring self-confidence, and striking swiftly with control and precision required poise; something I was emotionally, physically, and professionally lacking at the time. After briefly flailing around, desperately trying to regain my composure, I rediscovered a new strategy of being through martial arts. It changed everything.

Flash forward two years. I recently tested for my green belt in Cuong Nhu (pronounced Kung Noo) Oriental Martial Arts, meaning “hard soft.” As the name implies, it is a combination of both hard and soft styles of self-defense, including: Shotokan Karate, Vovinam, Judo, boxing, Tai Chi, Wing Chun and Aikido. My green belt test has been an affirmation on many levels. For my test, I was asked to demonstrate a standardized level of physical skill, recognized by the international school and thousands who have preceded me. I was asked to memorize and explain the core principals of Cuong Nhu philosophy, created by its founder — a humble scholar seeking to revitalize his fellow countrymen in war-torn Vietnam. I was asked to put aside trepidation, ego and personal judgment in order to respectfully embrace the wisdom of those with more training, deeper understanding, and far greater ability.

My green belt test has become significant for many reasons. As an adult, I have not had to endure the burden of playground intimidation for a long, long time. But there is a small part of every once-bullied child that struggles with self-esteem, self-reliance and safety. The core values of Cuong Nhu emphasize mental agility, physical endurance and emotional poise in order to protect truth and reason. The martial art of self-defense is not as much about physical power on life’s proverbial playground, as it is a means of self-preservation in service to others. It is about finding center, balance, breath, and stillness. It is about discovery, surrender and learning to push personal boundaries of mental and physical endurance. It is about cultivating responsiveness, confidence and mindfulness in the midst of life’s natural tendency towards chaos.

I hold tremendous gratitude to my teachers, individuals with exceptional distinction and monumental sincerity. My local instructor, Karen Bradshaw, is a fourth-degree black belt and owner/instructor of Carbondale’s newest dojo, Rising Crane of Cuong Nhu Martial Arts. A nationally acclaimed instructor with creative style and focus, Karen’s training of children and adults inspire confidence, determination and precision. Two years ago, she single-handedly convinced me to get back into shape using martial arts. Today, she is a dear family friend and a trusted teacher.

One of the style’s most revered masters and eldest son of its original founder, Master Bao Ngo is a 10th-degree black belt — a playful gentleman of indescribable modesty and unmatched skill. A senior executive with a multi-national healthcare firm, Master Bao lives and trains in Nashville, Tenn. — and stays in close communication with Cuong Nhu schools across the country. It has been an extraordinary honor to get to know him during his increasingly frequent visits to the Roaring Fork Valley. His is an extraordinary friendship, which I will always cherish.

Over the last year, Cuong Nhu has helped to reshape me physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually and professionally. I have rediscovered humility, gratitude, confidence, compassion, dignity and purpose in service to others. When I am at my best, I am an infinitely better father, husband, professional, friend and contributing member of my community. Time spent as a student of martial arts is time spent becoming the person I want to be.

Evan Zislis is founder and principal consultant, delivering hands-on organizational solutions for households, businesses, nonprofits, students and life transitions. To comment or suggest column topics, visit the Facebook page “Intentional Solutions.” For more information about simplifying your stuff and organizing your life, call 970-366-2532 or email

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