Karate as art and a trip to Japan

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Black belt instructor Vazrik Chiloyan during practice.
Anselmo Cassiano–The Tech

Vazrik Chiloyan graduated from MIT in 2011 with a double major in Mechanical Engineering and Physics, and a minor in Math. Currently an MIT Energy Initiative fellow, he also has a black belt in karate and instructs the Shotokan karate club. The Tech talked to Chiloyan about the discipline of karate and the club’s trips to Japan. 

The Tech: How did you get started doing karate?

Vazrik Chiloyan: I started off doing karate as a young boy at 7 years old because my father was a black belt in Shotokan and wanted his kids to benefit from learning karate as well. We stopped practicing after a year, and instead followed activities like track and field and soccer throughout high school. I started seriously training Shotokan karate in 2008 when I was a sophomore at MIT, and have continued it ever since. I’m second degree black belt and competed locally and internationally in both sparring and kata.

The Tech: What was it like going to Japan?

Chiloyan: In the summer of 2014, the Tokyo Institute of Technology invited MIT students to participate in their annual tech college Karate tournament. It was one of the most exciting opportunities ever presented to us. We went to Japan, were provided with accommodations and the opportunity to compete with some very high level college students. It was a very eye-opening experience. Many of these students had been training since they were 4 years old, and to see their dedication to this art filled my MIT friends and me with a new passion to train hard and achieve higher skills in Shotokan karate. They were very friendly and hospitable there, and we returned in 2015 (with greater competition success!). Each time visiting has given me the opportunity to learn new things and bring them back to MIT to pass along to the younger students.

The Tech: How does karate help with academics? 

Chiloyan: For as long as I remember, I have always been interested in some form of athletics as well as academics.  To me, they have always been intertwined. Just like we study academic subjects like math, physics, chemistry, and history, we can also study athletic activities such as soccer, running, or martial arts. Our minds and bodies are intended to be used to learn new things, pass on knowledge, and basically to be put to use! Karate in particular is very much something that can be thought of as academic. It gives you the opportunity to study an self defense art. With every karate practice I go to, whether I’m tired or sluggish and don’t particularly want to work out that day, after the workout I feel much better. I feel like I can return to my work with a new energy. 

We meditate at the start of every practice and at the end, and it teaches you to be mindful of the way you spend your time and focus your mind at the task at hand. Practicing karate three times a week for two hours gives you a chance to free your mind from academic and work stress, get a great workout, and then be able to return to your work with a new vigor.

The Tech: Why do Shotokan karate in particular and not other martial arts?

Chiloyan: For me, Shotokan karate is one of the most beautiful things I have every studied. The art form is almost mathematical in its precision and methods for developing of power, speed, timing, and rhythm. It’s a very wholesome art, in that it trains your lower body, your upper body, and your core. It teaches you to not only be powerful like a weightlifter, but to be agile like a sprinter. It teaches you to control your breath in both passive meditation as well as active techniques. It combines almost every aspect of physical activity imaginable. We also balance our emphasis on all aspects of martial arts: we train basics, as well as kata (choreographed forms), and sparring. We prepare for tournaments and compete, but also maintain true to the original developments of karate as a self defense art.

Regardless of whatever activity your true passion is, karate helps to teach you how to coordinate your body and learn to balance and flow between movements. In all of students I have trained, it has always improved their focus in being able to coordinate their body and breathing in a synchronized way, as well as their posture and awareness of their body mechanics.

The Tech: What is it like training with Kazumi Tabata Sensei?

Chiloyan: It’s both an honor and a privilege to train with someone as talented as Tabata Sensei. Tabata Sensei was sent from Japan to the U.S. with the task of spreading karate to college students. An 8th-degree black belt, his technique is truly incredible, and he has been teaching at the nearby colleges of BU, Tufts, and UMass Lowell, for over 40 years. He also trained the U.S. Karate Team for two decades, so he has devoted himself to the teaching of Shotokan karate in a variety of different outlets. To have the opportunity to train with him once a week at MIT gives students the opportunity to really get deep insight into karate, but in a very humble friendly atmosphere. While Tabata Sensei is practically a legend in the karate world, his approach is very down to earth and allows him to teach students far more effectively. He also founded the MIT Shotokan-Karate club in 1974.

The Tech: What is the plan for the next year ? Could you explain Super-Training 2016 with other colleges?

Chiloyan: On November 20, MIT hosted its first Super-Training at MIT. We had invited college students from BU, Tufts, UMass Lowell, Dartmouth College, and Harvard for a joint practice led by Tabata Sensei. This is the first of more to come, in the hopes of bringing together karate students in the greater Boston area to not only benefit from training with Tabata Sensei, but also to enjoy training with fellow karate students from other colleges.  It was a great success, and the students are already interested in the next installment to come in February/2017.

As for the tournament in Japan, we will be returning to the tournament next year in November 2017. This exciting opportunity has pushed many of the students to train hard in preparation for the tournament next year. New students are always welcome, and we have trained many students from zero experience up through black belt in their time here at MIT.

Editors note: This interview has been edited for clarity. Anselmo Cassiano is a member of the Shotokan karate club.