Sensei-tional Mentors – Vaughan Marial Arts
City Life Magazine goes head-to-head with martial artists in Vaughan who are raising the bar in developing self-confidence and spiritual strength in kids and adults across the community.
Can a martial artist instructor be the saving grace of self-esteem and bullying issues on the playground and in the workforce? From karate and jiu-jitsu to Muay Thai, Kobudo, Chito-ryu and tai chi, established Japanese, Thai and Chinese martial arts have been cultivating an environment where individuals can achieve inner peace and balance for centuries. Bringing these ancient styles of discipline to our community in a relevant, relatable way, our compendium of black-belt senseis have been transforming the lives of children and adults through structured programs, motivational classes and uplifting messages of encouragement to guide people through day-to-day issues and hardships. It’s no wonder more and more martial arts schools are popping up — the discipline is a big contender in developing physically and mentally strong, self-assured individuals from the ground up.
It’s been over a year since Aamir Shaikh, 43, retired from the corporate world to become a sensei and he couldn’t be happier. “It was a transformation coming into this place. The Northern Karate model of mind, body and spirit is not just kicking and punching. There’s something else; there’s a zen involved in it. It focuses your energy and allows you to reach inside to find that part you want to improve.” While the sensei started his martial arts career later in life, his impact thus far has been far-reaching. Armed with a first-degree black belt, Shaikh has guided students toward achieving inner greatness, including a young girl struggling with social anxiety who has now become an outgoing class member. “As a teacher it’s not just about making individuals into great martial artists, it’s making them better people.”
“As a teacher it’s not just about making individuals into great martial artists, it’s making them better people”
— Sensei Aamir Shaikh
Balance of Life Martial Arts
A sixth-degree black belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate and Shotokan Karate, Jannetta says that the best part of martial arts is the connectivity he feels with his inner self and those around him. “Through martial arts there are a lot of hidden lessons that you can teach yourself or at least see through other experiences from years of training — it’s a very different feeling than everything else. Whatever you put in you’re going to get back — and that’s a cool lesson martial arts teaches you.” The sensei, who is the recipient of four Martial Arts Hall of Fame Awards, has been immersed in the discipline of martial arts since he was four and opened up his own school, Balance of Life Martial Arts, when he was just 18.
At the age of 12, Giancarlo Esposito asked his father to enroll him in a martial arts program after becoming inspired by old movies of the discipline that played on the family TV every Saturday. Since then, the sensei opened up his own dojo in 2011 to inspire young kids with courage and the fundamental values of the ancient Japanese sport. The sensei, who is a sixth-degree black belt ranked in two systems of karate, counts Masami Tsuruoka, the first man to bring the Chito-ryu style to Canada, as a big influence in the work he carries out at Nobleton Karate. “The biggest thing I try to push is to work hard and to work smart,” says sensei Esposito. “The lessons and old-time values we can convey to our students are my passion.”
Canadian Black Belt Academy
Sensei Jason Figliano started training in martial arts at age six and has never looked back. The owner and head instructor of Canadian Black Belt Academy in Bolton is a proven MMA amateur champion and holds a fourth-degree black belt in Shotokan/Kempo Karate and a black belt in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. For well over a decade, sensei Figliano has trained countless kids and adults with the life skills imparted by martial arts. Next to teaching, his passion is to equip students with the tools to build character and self-confidence. Sensei Figliano runs classes and private lessons, as well as free women’s self-defence seminars and anti-bullying programs at the academy. “If you can arm your child with the mental attributes to deal with a bully, they won’t have to resort to getting physical,” he says.
Bushido Kai Martial Arts Centre
“In the dojo and in life, you never quit, you never give up. You keep going no matter what. This is one of the biggest things we strive for here,” says sensei Jeff Boyce of Bushido Kai Martial Arts Centre. Guiding students through programs in Goju Ryu karate, jiu-jitsu, Kobudo and tai chi since he opened his Richmond Hill dojo over 20 years ago, Boyce leads from the front and pulls students along in an encouraging and motivating, one-on-one environment. “If we’re doing a sit-up drill I’ll do it along with them,” says the fifth-degree black belt, who aspires to teach martial arts internationally one day. “We make sure it’s a positive experience for all our students.”
Canada’s Best Karate
Everything worthwhile doesn’t always come easy. This is a message sensei Scott Bullard lives and breathes by. A sixth-degree black belt, Bullard gave up his job as a chemical engineer to pursue his life calling in martial arts instruction back in 1991. Two years later he founded Canada’s Best Karate, a state-of-the-art facility offering structured programs that focus on building one’s self-defence skills and personal development. Since then he’s become a trusted sensei, a champion in supporting local charities and one of a few certified Bullies2Buddies instructors in Canada. “Karate is the vehicle by which we learn self-discipline and self-confidence,” says Bullard. “Seeing my students break through an obstacle with renewed confidence and the feeling that they’ve accomplished something they never thought possible is the biggest reward for me.”
“Seeing my students break through an obstacle with renewed confidence and the feeling that they’ve accomplished something they never thought possible is the biggest reward for me”
— Sensei Scott Bullard
M-1 Thai Boxing
On the outside he’s a lean, mean fighting machine, but on the inside, Kru Alex Ricci, head coach of M-1 Thai Boxing, is a gentle soul with a passion to teach. “I learn a lot through competition. It really tests me. It helps me grow as a person. And I like to share my experiences and pass on my knowledge to other people,” says Ricci, a UFC hopeful who first stumbled upon the combat sport of Muay Thai in a library book when he was a teenager. After a visit to Thailand, the motherland of the sport, he began training and competing in fights before opening a gym that focuses on finding balance and the physical strength within men, women and children.
Photography By Carlos Arturo Pinto and Sal Pasqua