By Lyra Bordelon
The Greenbrier Traditional Martial Arts Society, also known as Yatagarasu Dojo, is one of many martial arts studios that have reopened after Governor Jim Justice’s COVID-19 orders closed them earlier this year.
The dojo is led by Dr. Peter Ward, a black belt and associate professor of anatomy biomedical sciences at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, who is hoping new precautions, like masks and disinfectants, and an increased emphasis on distanced weapons, such as wooden staffs and swords, will serve as an effective barrier to potential transmission. Limiting contact between people who are not typically exposed to one another is a priority.
“Normally we would be working on the empty hand because that’s far more pragmatic in today’s society, but … we’re trying to keep that to a minimum,” explained Ward. “We have some people who are brothers, we have a husband and wife, so if they are in close contact I can occasionally work some classes with them doing some techniques where they trip each other, do some wrist locks, and some other techniques like that and knowing that they’re not going to be potentially spreading anything between each other.”
Before COVID-19 shut downs required the dojo to close, the classes offered instruction in atemijutsu (striking with punches, kicks, elbows, knees, and fingertips against vulnerable points), aikijujutsu (blending and neutralizing an opponent’s attacks with blocks, joint controls, throws, and leg sweeps), ukemi (rolling and falling safely), kenjutsu (bladed weapons, such as knives, short swords, long swords), and jojutsu (staves and stick weapons). The pandemic instead pushed Ward to emphasize the distanced part of the circulum rather than hand-to-hand interaction.
“We’ve basically shifted – we’re very lucky to have a weapon’s curriculum, looking at traditional Japanese feudal-style weapons,” Ward explained. “Long staff, long sword, everything inbetween, and we’re going to maintain a bit of separation, even with our masks on, using the long-staff and moving some things forward in the curriculum. … [We are] focusing mostly on the longer staff so that we are maintaining distancing between people but still giving them a good self defense background, learning how to block and how to respond when a stick is coming at their head.”
Students in both the child and adult classes offered spoke positively about the dojo’s new direction and the precautions put in place.
“He’s been really conscientious and trying to balance things,” said Liza Barlett, both a student in the adult classes and parent to students in the kid’s classes. “Some people haven’t come back – hopefully they will eventually. We’ve been doing all weapons so you don’t have as much contact. It’s been really fun. … We really missed it while it was closed down, so … we’re really glad to get back to it.”
The younger students particularly haven’t been complaining about the shift however.
“I was worried they were going to find it overly complicated but they’ve said they really enjoy it,” Ward said, laughing. “… I shouldn’t have worried because giving them a wooden sword and a wooden staff and teaching them how to use it is very popular with them, so it turned out pretty well. … The adult class, I’ve had a couple of students say they really enjoy having to focus on one aspect of the curriculum so intense.”
In one class, the excitement was also met with hesitation by one set of younger students. Although they excitedly ran through forms, when Ward stood in front of one student as they held a wooden sword toward his chest, he told them to swing harder. When the student, about ten years old, responded they were nervous, he smiled and told them not to be.
“If I tell you to do something and I get hurt, who’s fault is it?” Ward asked.
“The guy with the black belt, that’s right! As long as you do what I ask, it’s good by me.”
The swords then clacked much harder.
Noting that each class was in the double digits as the pandemic shut downs began, Ward explained many people have not yet returned, uncertain about the guidelines and what could be done to keep the dojo COVID safe.
“The pandemic has definitely take a chunk out of attendance,” Ward said. “It’s been difficult because we’ve been trying to stick to the government and the governor’s recommendations as best we can and it’s difficult when you have martial arts that involve hand-to-hand practice and training. What we’ve done is have lots of masks available, we have disinfectant that we use on everything between classes.”
Hoping to bring back the full curriculum soon, once the proper guidelines are in place, Ward plans to keep the distanced training, masks, and disinfectants in place, following the scientific guidelines.
“Essentially objective guidance from the CDC would be number one,” Ward said. “We want to put the scientific experts first, [I take] their recommendations very seriously. Those are the ones I’m look toward for guidance, what it’s safe to do. … [For example, it] turns out respiratory spread is still pretty potent but spread surface to surface doesn’t seem to be as prominent as it initially seemed, so that’s nice. We’re just following the best guidance we can get from the CDC and we’re just trying to wade through the flood of information coming at us, whether its good or bad, and just finding the reliable stuff. … I’m really chomping at the bit to get the full syllabus back again and have people in close quarters without worrying about viral spread.”
Yatagarasu Dojo can be reached by calling 304-645-4768 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Classes are offered for kids (five to nine years old), youth (10 to 15 years old) and adults.