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Teaching “Peaceful Way” makes dojo the Best of Best

Phoenix Academy earns title for third year in a row

By Nathan Tsukroff

AUBURN – For the third year in a row, Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts has been voted Best of the Best for providing the Best Martial Arts Instruction in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

The voting was conducted online by Marketing Surveys of America from Dover, NH, and Phoenix Academy received a substantially higher vote count than last year, said Donna Harris, who owns the school with her husband, Harry. She believes this strong rating is a result of the school’s approach to teaching karate as a way of life, not just a sport.

The school, referred to as a “dojo” – a place for immersive learning or meditation – is located on Center Street in Auburn, and teaches a style of karate called Pinan-Do, which translates to Peaceful Way.

Donna Harris said this style was created by a group of karate practitioners in 2009 who agreed that they felt the need to return to a style of martial arts that goes back to the original roots of karate. Members of the group included the Harrises along with Tony Bennett, Mark Fryover, Randy Martin, and Bill Parquette. They are referred to as “Sosai”, which roughly translates to “founder”.

Donna Harris, a Sosai (“founder”) at Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts on Center Street in Auburn, practices an elboy strike with Tetsudai (“helper”) Tim Doyon as part of her continuing education in karate. Harris has been learning karate for 23 years, and now shares her knowledge with students at her school. (Tsukroff photo)

The martial art we know as karate was developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) under the influence of Kung Fu, particularly the Fujian White Crane style. The kingdom was located on the Ryukyu islands and was ruled as a tributary state of imperial China before being invaded by Japan in 1609. It was dissolved in 1879 to form the present-day Okinawa Prefecture.

Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) was an Okinawan who brought karate to Japan in 1922 and is accepted as the father of modern karate. He changed the art’s name to mean “way of the empty hand”, and taught karate as a path to self-knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting.

The Pinan kata are a series of five empty hand forms taught in many karate styles. A kata is a detailed choreographed pattern of martial arts movements made to be practiced alone.

While modern karate is now considered a striking art using punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes and open-hand techniques, the Harrises and their group wanted to steer students back to the philosophy of self-development. Adding the suffix “-do” (pronounced “daw”), which means “the way/path”, implies that karate-do is a total way of life that goes well beyond self-defense. Pinan-do teaches students to compete and strive to excel against themselves.

Students at Phoenix Academy range from two-year-olds to fifty-year-olds, with many families involved, Donna Harris said. “We are a very family-oriented school.”

   She said she thinks the reason her school was voted Best of the Best “is based overall on people’s reflection of what we do here, and the quality of instruction that we give, and the fact that our instruction goes beyond just the martial arts. It’s more about building the entire person – helping you discover who you are, from the inside out.”

Harris said she thinks the success of the teaching at the dogo is due in part to “the variety of instructors that we have, that offer skills and a mindset that is unmeasurable.”

 Donna Harris, a Sosai (“founder”) at Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts on Center Street in Auburn, practices moves with Tetsudai (“helper”) Tim Doyon as part her continuing learning of karate. (Tsukroff photo)

Sosai Mark Fryover is one of the instructors, along with the Harrises. And then “we are fortunate enough to have our own instructor (Tetsudai (“helper”) Tim Doyon) in-house who helps us to further our education,” she said. “And he is also donating his talents to help bring the next generation of students up, as well.”

Harris said she has been a martial artist for 23 years, but never stops learning, even from new students. “I have to learn how to teach them,” she said. Harris has been learning moves, techniques and philosophy from Doyon for the past three years.

 “As a martial artist, training never ends. There’s always more to learn, there’s always more to discover about the art. Martial arts is an art, and it’s not something that you just read about. It’s something that you discover more and more,” she said. “As you practice it, you discover why the katas were written the way that they were written – what defense techniques were actually anticipated in the writing of the kata.”

With the martial arts moves if the 1960s and 1970s increasing the popularity of martial arts around the world, karate was pursued by some students only for its fighting techniques. Harris’ school promotes karate as a defensive technique, with a holistic approach that teaches students to look inward to improve themselves.

Harris spent several hours training with Doyon last Friday afternoon. Constant learning is important, Doyon said, because “everything is perishable, everything fades.” To achieve a level of expertise “you have to keep up that constant level of practice all the time to be at that level.”

“My master used to always say, people often feel that when you get to a point where you feel you’re enlightened, that you’re at that place forever. But that’s not the truth,” Doyon said. “It’s just a marker on the road. Really, whatever got you to that point of enlightenment, you have to keep up that practice.”

Harris echoed that sentiment, explaining that this is why she continues to train and learn.

When asked about her level as a black belt, Harris said that in many styles of karate, “it’s all about rank. In our (Pinan-do) style, it’s not about rank. We’re really not worried so much about the rank,” but about the knowledge she and her students have about this martial art. The school is more interested in the growth of students, she said.

“So I’ve been practicing for 23 years, and therefore I have 23 years more experience than a student coming in off the street. So is that a rank? That’s what classifies me as having more experience,” than a new student, she said.

The belt system at Phoneix Academy is intended to recognize a student having learned a certain number of moves. As they memorize more moves, they move up in the belt system. But the ranking of a belt color should be “more of a personal thing,” Doyon said. Rank “isn’t something to be displayed and held above peoples’ heads.”

Harris and Doyon both emphasized that the importance of their levels of knowledge is not in achieving a title, but in being able to share their knowledge with others. “The reward is in passing on the knowledge,” Doyon said, while the title is only important in that it lets the student know what they have learned.

 “And I think that is one of the reasons that we win this award year after year,” Harris said. Parents will initially come to the school with the mindset that “I want to teach my child discipline, or my kid has watched ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ and wants to learn karate. And then they shortly discover that it’s so much more than that.”

“They see how we’re interacting with the children. It’s not just, ‘Hey, I’m teaching you how to do pushups. I’m teaching you to be fearful of me.’ It’s more, ‘So I have something to share, and I have as much to learn from you as you do from me, and we’re here to learn together.’,” Harris said.

“There’s something to learn from everyone,” she said. With new students who are just beginning,  “I can learn patience. I can learn kindness. I can learn how to interact, how to pass my knowledge on to somebody.” Every student is different, and she learns what is needed to help each of those students.

Donna Harris, co-owner of Phoenix Academy of Martial Arts on Center Street in Auburn, shows off the first two awards her school received as Best of the Best for providing the Best Martial Arts Instruction in the Lewiston-Auburn area. Phoenix Academy was recently named Best of the Best for the third consecutive year. (Tsukroff photo)

Harris said she is excited about 2021 because the school is evaluating how it teaches its students and will be changing its curriculum for a more focused approach to learning karate. “We will be evolving it to reflect what we’ve discovered. We’re actually going to be taking out a lot of the things that we have that didn’t really have the values that we want to share. And we’d rather have less material, stronger, and have our students have a complete understanding of why they’re learning what they’re learning.”

The school will look at teaching students what the (karate) moves mean, how to execute them, how to use them to defend themselves, and how to use those moves and that knowledge in their everyday life “to move forward and be a better person,” she said.

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