Six days a week, 8-year-old Ajay Sawant trains at Kuk Sool Won of Los Altos martial arts school, joined by his dad Danny Sawant and grandfather some days. Having so many members of the same family train under him at the American Legion Hall isn’t new to chief instructor David Hespelt.
“We had three generations, but that isn’t the only one,” he said. “Kuk Sool Won is just an all-around great body activity.”
While Kuk Sool Won is a “combination of all martial arts,” Danny said, it is expressed differently than, say, karate or judo because of the way they come together. The Kuk Sool Won of Los Altos website boasts that the sport embodies the “entire spectrum of the traditional Asian fighting arts and techniques.” The techniques appeal to both young and old, Danny said.
Hespelt’s classes are divided by age group: Little Dragons (ages 5-8), Junior Black Belt (8-12) and adults (12 and over). To encourage bonding, Hespelt offers family classes in which parents can practice Kuk Sool Won with their kids.
“I think the importance of family is something that (Hespelt) also emphasizes a lot, and respect,” said Danny, a Los Altos resident. “He focuses on making sure that people understand the skills that they learn and (that) martial arts are not to be used to hurt somebody else.”
Hespelt aims to make his studio feel like a sanctuary for his students. Recognizing the amount of homework and work stress placed on the shoulders of kids and adults, he makes it clear that his students are walking into a space devoid of tension.
“When (my students) say the magic words ‘Kuk Sool,’ they can step over the border, and they are now in South Korea,” said Hespelt, referring to where Kuk Sool Won originated. “They are in a safe zone where there isn’t any homework. There aren’t any choices. There’s nobody yelling at them, and nobody trying to physically hurt them. It’s a safe place to learn about themselves and martial arts.”
Hespelt noted that the importance of nurturing students dates back to when he first signed up for Kuk Sool Won at age 18. His parents were not getting along at the time, he said, so he came to the studio after school to practice Kuk Sool Won, do his homework, vacuum the school and wash the windows.
“I’ll never forget how my instructor took me under his wing and protected me and let me stay and provided a stable environment for me to be able to have a semi-normal life in that regard,” Hespelt said.
The impression his master had on him still resonates with him today. In the same respect, as his students now address him as “Master,” he wants them to know that they are welcomed to his “safe haven.”
After recognizing the subject of bullying and its effects on mental health, Hespelt joined Martial Artists Against Bullying, a program that seeks to address bullying and find ways to incorporate anti-bullying lessons in martial arts.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that around still,” he said. “Even some of my own students I found out are being bullied, and I’ve had talks with them about it to figure out what the situation is and how they can avoid it or get through it.”
Hespelt added that he not only teaches students how to defend themselves from potential threats, but also stresses self-discovery and compassion in his classes. He said talking to each of his younger students about school and life is invaluable, and he hopes to connect with them by sharing wisdom he gained from his experiences traveling around the world.
“I felt like (Hespelt) was excellent and really connected with the students, and made martial arts seem like what it is,” said Mountain View resident Sangeeta Mediratta, whose son practices at the school. “It is really an amazing kind of lifestyle where it’s about training the body along a specific set of techniques.”
While self-discipline comes into play in martial arts, Hespelt said that Kuk Sool Won enables one to acquire a sense of purpose and self-worth in school, work and life in general. With students as young as 3 and as old as 86, he said their dedication to the arts motivates him to be the teacher he is today.
“(I’m) excited all the time,” he said. “I see what their potential is, and I see how hard they want to learn, and it drives me to put more into it.”
Hespelt, who has rented space at the American Legion Hall at 347 First St. since 2016, hopes to expand the school by purchasing his own building.
For more information on Kuk Sool Won of Los Altos, call 938-1553 or visit kuksoolwon.net.