Calgarian Chris Leigh-Smith, owner of the Tao of Peace martial arts studio, is leading the charge to reshaping the traditional Korean art to promote equality and unity among students.
Leigh-Smith didn’t always plan on opening a martial arts studio. He wanted to start a school that used alternative methods of teaching.
“As I was teaching with the Calgary Board, I wasn’t bumping into a lot of people that were willing to do the same thing,” reflects Leigh-Smith.
“One day my martial arts instructor came up to me and said, you should start up your own school.”
He went with the idea because he also wanted a place to train with his children.
“When I opened up the studio, I started to realize that this was the school I’d been dreaming of,” he explains. “It was almost by accident.”
Leigh-Smith started taking Judo when he was 11, and picked it up again in university. He opened up the studio, which teaches Hapkido, when he was 37.
“The biggest premise was unity,” he emphasizes. “If we all treated each other as if we were equals, the world would be a better place.”
“The word “Tao” means “your path”, and I wanted a place that respected everybody’s unique path.”
Each instructor at the studio has unique qualities that they contribute to the studio to keep it running.
“They’re a very diverse group, the instructors,” he laughs.
“Tristan has probably been with me the longest.
“His ability to connect with people is outstanding.”
Tristan Kennedy says that he’s been coming to the Tao of Peace since he was seven.
“I’ve been doing it for a long time, so I have lots of experience and knowledge,” Kennedy explains.
“It’s easier for me to understand people on all levels.”
Instructor David Hogenson, says Leigh-Smith, puts people at ease when he teaches them.
“I give him the newbies,” laughs Leigh-Smith. “It relaxes them.”
Leigh-Smith said that Hogenson’s background in construction is essential to all the remodelling they do at the studio.
A new plan to build single change rooms for LGBTQ students, or others that wish for privacy has been discussed.
“If I had to pay professional contractors to do it, I wouldn’t be able to pay for it,” muses Leigh-Smith.
He had to work two jobs to keep the studio open for the first 15 of the 25 years it’s been running.
Leigh-Smith hopes to retire one day, and that his staff, who keep the place running, will carry on the studio after he’s gone.
Building change-rooms for LGBTQ people is not just the only step for equality that Leigh-Smith has taken for the studio.
“There are lots of traditions that I actually took out when I opened the studio,” he clarifies. “I felt that they were either self-serving, hierarchial, or egotistical.”
He explains that the traditional system places extreme respect on the black belt and headmaster, usually through fear.
“It’s teaching a pecking order,” he highlights. “None of these things fit with what I envisioned for a studio.”
“I tried to create a different kind of tradition.
“The tradition was that the white belt was to be as highly respected as the black belt, that all people could be treated uniformly, regardless of their experience or age.”
Leigh-Smith has the same philosophy when it comes to all people in all walks of life.
“I don’t know why we think that adults deserve more respect than a five-year-old, or a man more respect than a woman, or the powerful more respect than the weaker one.”
The philosophy that is taught at the studio is closer to the old style martial arts, refers Leigh-Smith.
He explains that it focuses more on training wisdom, spiritual growth, protection of yourself and the weak, and even enlightenment.
Students receive philosophy talks during the regular class dubbed “Coach’s Corner”, where an instructor will share an experience or a story that demonstrates a concept to get students to think.
“We’re not trying to tell anybody what to believe,” Leigh-Smith makes clear.
“We’re saying, here is a story, take from it what you want.”
Daniel Fine, a student and soon-to-be instructor at the studio, explains that the philosophy and uniqueness of martial arts is what makes it special.
“I like physical exercise, but you could get that from anywhere, so the part that makes it special is learning a useful skill that you can apply to your life.”
“It revolutionized my life,” he laughs.
“Before I was more of a violent person who didn’t have a good understanding of martial arts.
“This has taught me not only martial arts, but self control and discipline, as well as leadership skills.”
Kennedy reiterates the same thing about Hapkido.
“People think that martial arts is just about being able to defend yourself and fight people,” he muses.
“I believe that just being able to do the skills and find confidence in yourself in the first place, is usually beneficial in all aspects of your life.”
Leigh-Smith has one wish for what the students will get out of the studio.
“I hope they leave with more awareness.”