OFF THE COUCH Kickboxing thrives in its purest forms

Kickboxing has elbowed and kneed its way into mainstream American martial arts and sports circles in the last decade: Distilled from this is its gentler kin, commonly referred to as cardio-kickboxing, which has evolved from a fad to a gymnasium staple like aerobics. The drawback of this popularity is that some karate and aerobics studios pin up hand-penciled signs declaring themselves sudden experts.

Purists should inquire into instructor experience, background and certification process. By the way, I personally define kickboxing as Muay Thai, the combative sport developed in Thailand. Deviations should have a qualifier such as American kickboxing, the rules of which have dictated most kickboxing competition in the states for the last quarter-century.

If you work in San Francisco and you want to learn Muay Thai, seriously consider Fairtex, the only U.S. training camp certified by the Thai government. On this side of the Bay, the Concord Kickboxing Club has been around for five years, and health clubs recruit its students as kickboxing instructors. Under Kru Vut Kamnark, a former northeast Thailand champion and president of Hollywood-based United Muay Thai Association, the club started with Daniel and Zina Docto five years back.

The husband-and-wife team were Christian youth leaders who, as Zina Docto explained, wanted a “vehicle to reach out and share the gospel with people.” Since Daniel Docto happened to be the 1993 International Karate Kickboxing Council’s Northern California light heavyweight kickboxing champion, American style, a club satisfied their desire to promote good health.

Christianity isn’t a requirement for membership, but religion in the boxing ring makes perfect sense considering the intertwined relationship between Buddhism and Muay Thai. My friend Peter Vail, who happens to be focusing his dissertation on the subject, points out that early Thai boxers trained in village temples and monks were involved in boxing matches. Before each fight, opponents engage in wai kruu, a prayer dance that involves some mighty deep knee bends.

The prayer bow, which stretches out the groin muscles quite nicely, is just one of the warm-up exercises at the Concord club. In one Monday night class, the warm-up combined familiar boxing exercises (e.g., jump roping) and leg strengthening and stretching exercises. As dance music from the likes of Freak Nasty Ho blared from the stereo, we moved right into practicing the front kick, using the heel, flat sole and toe as the striking surface against a shield held by partners.

For those interested in more esoteric workouts, savate is kickboxing with a French attitude. Savate, which means “old shoe, ” combines English-style boxing and kicking style that may be Asian in origin. Sailors brought kicking techniques to the port town of Marseilles, where its street wranglers adopted the footwork. Savate became a formal sport in the 1800s under Charles Lecour, who integrated the handwork and created sports meets.

Savate has its practitioners mainly in France, England, Japan and Canada. There is movement to bring competition tournaments to the Bay Area in the next two years.

Connie English and John Castro are the co-instructors for the Walnut Creek and Lafayette recreation classes.

English, who has trained in karate and savate for the past two years, approaches savate from a fitness viewpoint. This perspective and her constant encouragement provide a comforting environment for beginners. In just one class, we covered basic stance, footwork, jabs and punches. More than many martial arts I’ve seen, savate really stresses extending the limbs. It requires endurance, flexibility and a savviness in measuring distance.

As with any endeavor, assessing your needs (exercise vs. self-defense) will determine your final choice. Choosing a martial art or martial exercise, though, does open up avenues for a spiritual and intellectual workout as well. Just whatever you do, keep your hands up, elbows in and raise those knees high before you kick.

Vera HC Chan writes Off the Couch every other week.

This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features section