UO martial arts professor encourages students to think like beginners

Ryan Kelly might be a highly trained and experienced martial artist, but one of the University of Oregon adjunct professor’s most sought-after accomplishments is the attainment of a “beginners mind.”@@[email protected]@

As a student of Jeet Kune Do — the teachings and philosophies of Bruce Lee — Kelly has dedicated his life to a model of tolerance and understanding. According to Lee, the path to satisfaction depends on abandoning preconceived “ways” of thinking and maintaining the open mindset of a beginner to constantly reassess and evolve personal preference — something Kelly has taken to heart.@@[email protected]@

“I don’t have a ‘way.’ I’m always searching; I’m always seeking, so I’m willing to  listen, I’m willing to read, I’m willing to try, I’m willing to research,” Kelly said. “Bruce Lee’s philosophy and the way that he approaches fighting and the life has become my life.”

Kelly was introduced to the world of martial arts as an elementary school student when his parents enrolled him in an after-school Judo class. With the progression of his skills came a voracious appetite for the martial arts.

After learning Judo, Kelly expanded his repertoire to include the arts of Karate and Tae Kwon Do. When he was 14, Kelly was introduced to Jeet Kune Do, Lee’s practical synthesis of various martial arts forms. Unlike other martial arts, Jeet Kune Do emphasizes the adaptation of existing ideologies and fighting styles to fit individual preferences — both physical and spiritual — over the importance of a predetermined fighting style.

“As soon as I was introduced to (Jeet Kune Do) when I was 14 or 15 years old I said, ‘This makes sense, this is who I am, this is how I’m going to live my life,’” Kelly said. “I’m going to have a beginners mind, I’m going to seek different cultures, different ways of seeing different philosophies, different systems of belief on health, diet, religion, philosophy — everything.”

As a professor at the UO and the owner of the Northwest Martial Arts Academy in Eugene, Kelly hopes to pass along Lee’s philosophical teachings regardless of the art form he’s teaching — Jeet Kune Do, Mixed Martial Arts, Women’s Self Defense, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or Muay Thai. @@[email protected]@

Among the most important teachings that Kelly hopes to inspire in his students are the ideas of “truth in combat,” which entails focusing on martial arts techniques that have an applicable use in modern-day fighting. Also, developing a “style without style” by mixing the strengths of various fighting forms to develop a non-classical, individual hybrid.

The most well-rounded fighters, Kelly says, are those who have opened their minds to all different perspectives of philosophy, martial arts, diet and religion and taken the time to determine which approach works best for them.

“If you’re trying to find what’s going to work for you in self-defense then you have to be able to accept yourself as an individual and realize that no specific martial arts system or style was made for you,” Kelly said. “When you run into martial arts styles and systems you can’t  just judge them by how good of a fighter they’re going to make you — you also have to ask yourself, ‘Does this add value to me as a human being, does it enrich my life?'”

Sean Friedman-Sowder, a recent UO graduate and active martial artist believes that his first Jeet Kune Do class with Kelly six years ago was an invaluable introduction to the world of hand-to-hand combat.

“The stuff wasn’t really flashy, you know, it was how to do some really practical martial arts techniques and I thought that was really interesting,” Friedman-Sowder said. “I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in martial arts take his class before they look into other forms … it was a really good introduction class that opened my eyes.”

For Kelly, teaching is the ultimate reward. Not only is he able to prepare people to defend themselves in real world situations, but he can also encourage his students to abandon their preconceived notions of the world around them — to think more like beginners.

“It makes me feel great to know that I have a chance to make an impact in someone’s life,” Kelly said. “I know that what I’m giving people, the empowerment, the willingness to look at other cultures and other ways of life. If I can even just reach out to a few people every term, I would think that it’s a life worth living.”

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Sami Edge

Sami Edge

Sami is the Editor In Chief of The Emerald. Former intern at Willamette Week and aspiring international investigative reporter. Swimmer, writer, dreamer, reader, thinker, explorer and drinker of strong coffee.