Martial arts is a lifelong process of learning. And Master Ken Baker who opened Sagasu in Leavenworth in 1977 has devoted most of his life to the practice and teaching of these ancient traditions.

By RIMSIE MCCONIGA
rmcconiga@leavenworthtimes.com

Martial arts is a lifelong process of learning. And Master Ken Baker who opened Sagasu in Leavenworth in 1977 has devoted most of his life to the practice and teaching of these ancient traditions.

Baker has earned black belts in karate, aikido, koaudo, jujitsu, kung fu, taekwondo, hapkido, arnis, kenp, aikijujutsu, and judo over 47 years but he believes there will always be more to learn. He continues to study because he believes it is his responsibility to himself and his students to constantly be exposed to new and refined methods of practice at all times.

“I need to be an example for my students,” said Baker. “There is so much to learn.”
After teaching for Leavenworth Parks and Recreation he enjoyed it so much that he decided the best way to continue would be to establish his own school. Sagasu just celebrated its 40th anniversary Sept. 30. “Martial arts has been very instrumental in shaping who I am and the people I have associated with,” said Baker. “The old war stories came out at the celebration and we all remembered how indestructible we were so many years ago.”

The most memorable moments for Baker of teaching martial arts for four decades is when students contact him after many years of being away and say how much their lives were influenced for the better because of the training, and that they don’t know where they would have been without Baker.
“For me, I don’t know where I would have been without them,” said Baker.
Baker became intrigued with martial arts when, as a child, he perused a book his brother had purchased called Combat Judo. But with no classes in the area back then, he relied on the next best thing — books.

“It was still very mysterious,” said Baker.  “Then the Green Hornet came out on T.V.  I really enjoyed watching Bruce Lee.  So I sent off for my first martial arts books.  My mom was not thrilled with that so she burned them both.  Eventually I joined the Marine Corps.  Mom was still not happy with that decision but she loved me anyway.”
Refinement and improvement have been the guiding goals for Baker as he strives each day to be better than the day before. He teaches adult classes a minimum of four times each week locally and he also travels to different states to teach seminars.

Baker’s daughter Karen and her husband Gabe have developed a children’s program at Sagasu and Baker says their energy and excitement really sparks the kids’ interest. Rather than teaching an adult curriculum, they center their teaching around the children’s stages of development. Baker says there has been a dramatic change in the U.S. on how to teach children martial arts compared to when he first began.

Depending on the maturity of the child, kids can begin martial arts as early as 3 years old. The training is chosen based on the child’s unique physical, intellectual, emotional and social stage of development.  
Baker says it’s sometimes difficult to tell if a child who is beginning martial arts will be proficient at it.

“I have trained some children for years and they show up just to be showing up.  One day they will come in and like a butterfly they have blossomed overnight into a fine martial artist.  Some have started out great when it is easy for them, but when they encounter difficulties in their training, rather than overcome, they cease their training. Many adults return years later, wishing they had continued their training.”
For men and women who are looking for the most effective ways of self defense, Baker says martial arts training helps with self confidence as the student begins performing skills they never would have thought possible.

Most importantly, he believes that martial arts helps people become aware of their surroundings and what is safe and what is not. “I believe martial arts training offers many benefits.  If you aren’t doing any physical training how long could a person last in a self-defense situation.  If you have never been grabbed, choked or even struck in your life how would you react the very first time?  Normally people freeze when it comes to new stimulus.  If you never learned how to strike or kick properly you may end up doing damage to yourself. Trust that ‘uh oh’ feeling that we have been given. The most sought-after victim is one that lowers their head and stares at the ground, not one who is walking erect and exuding a degree of confidence and awareness.”

Seniors also can benefit from martial arts. Baker emphasizes that he can’t do everything he did 30 years ago, but he still enjoys what he does. “Martial Arts is not just physical.  It is a path you can follow at any time. The question is, can you be a better version of yourself regardless of the age you start, the answer for me would be, yes.”

Martial arts include many different forms and techniques. “Karate, taekwondo and kenpo are crossover arts that have influenced each other over many years,” said Baker. “They are from Japan, Korea and Okinawa and their specialty is known for their skill sets as striking and kicking arts.  Jujutsu or jujitsu, with other spellings, can vary widely on emphasis.  Some very closely resemble the striking arts, while others stress mainly the grappling.  Those that stress grappling may choose between standup or ground grappling.    Aiki-Jujitsu and aikido have common roots as well.  You will see many of their restraining techniques used by law enforcement today.  It has limited striking and a mid-range level for grappling.  Arnis/Kali/Escrima are Filipino arts.  They are known for starting out with weapons, knives, stick and staff, and then to the empty hand.  It will have a mix of strikes and grappling.  Eagle Claw Kung Fu is a very aggressive style using limbs as if they were wings and claws.  Wudang Kung Fu is a softer and relaxed style, but uses that for generating great power.  It was the forerunner to tai chi.”

The incremental rise for earning black belts illustrates a process of physicality, accumulated knowledge and the morality of contributions given back to martial arts. Baker says most systems have 9 to 10 degrees of black belt.
Each rank level builds upon the previous level earned, said Baker.  “As additional material is taught, refinement and improvement in what you have already learned is just, as if not more important.  Historically, before black belt, it starts at white belt and each progression brings a darker color of belt until you reach the black belt status. In some systems at the highest levels one may receive a white belt again to show you have completed the circle of training and back to the innocence of when you started.”

Baker’s skill level has afforded him many opportunities, including as a certified instructor with Iain Abernathy of the British Combat Association, (one of the world’s leading groups for close-quarter combat, self-protection and practical martial arts), the English Karate Federation, and the British Karate Association.
“Iain Abernethy is one of the finest proponents of teaching applications associated with the striking arts of karate, taekwondo, etc. based on interpretations of their memorized forms,” said Baker.  “My friendship and training with Mr. Abernethy began many years ago by attending and sponsoring his seminars throughout the United States when he visits.  Toss in emails and shared videos we are in constant contact with our development.  I have enjoyed this as it allows me to continue as a student myself.  To be a recognized instructor with Sensei Abernethy we had to go through a process of thorough training, written exams, and videotaping to demonstrate our understanding of the self-defense concepts of our training.  
For Baker, his years of training have not only afforded him the satisfaction of turning his love for martial arts into a career, it has also given him leverage in diffusing a few real-life physical confrontations by restraining someone so others wouldn’t get hurt. Training has given him the self-confidence to intervene with enough presence and verbal authority to ensure that assailants are deterred from an attack. “Of course, I did stop a couple of pick-pockets while vacationing overseas but in none of these cases did I ever have to physically hurt anyone, said Baker.  With all my training I have done for self-defense, I hope I never have to hurt someone.  If you can diffuse a situation and leave with a friend it is the highest level you can try to attain.”

For those interested in beginning training in martial arts, Baker’s advice is to decide what they are looking to gain from the classes and then visit different schools to see what they offer and how they teach their classes. Then they should try out a couple of classes. Since this is a very personal decision, he warns not to sign up until they are sure they want to make a long-term commitment. And as Baker knows all too well, “This path is not just a part-time activity. It can be long-time passion that can last a lifetime.”
His passion for martial arts is far from over. Baker hopes to teach as long as he is physically able.

“Every year I develop new and lasting friendships, get to see young people grow up and mature.  I hope to continue making a difference in people’s lives.  I have seen up to three generations coming through our school.  I hope to be around to a see a fourth.”