The Focus, Power and Discipline of Birmingham’s Martial Arts Community

By Nathan Turner Jr.

For the Birmingham Times

Linda May says the karate classes at the Urban Attic gym on 1st Avenue North in East Lake have helped her physically and mentally. (All Photos Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

At age 10, Mustafa Ali remembers living in the Norwood community and watching a neighborhood karate expert break a brick in half with his foot. The man later gave Ali and a cousin lessons in kicking and punching.

Ali, now 47, has blossomed into a master instructor who conducts classes in East Lake as part of the Calligan’s Karate System, which runs schools that train students and others not only self-defense but also ways to harness energy that enhances health, confidence, and inner well-being.

Ali, known as “sensei”—Japanese for “teacher”—is one of several martial arts instructors throughout the Birmingham metro area who teach young and old the art of karate. A key strategy for the student is to infuse his martial arts performance with spirit and intent. Discipline, patience and life lessons are also taught.

“[You] learn how to treat others, how to respect others,” Ali said. “Never look down on anyone. And because you possess a stronger position in life never use that stronger position to try to possess power over others.”

Karate, one of the most widely used forms of martial arts in the world, is predominantly known as a striking art that uses punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes, and open-hand techniques (knife hands, spear hands, and palm-heel strikes).

Mustafa Ali demonstrates a move with the help of Eric Calhoun at the Urban Attic gym on 1st Avenue North. (Frank Couch / The Birmingham Times)

However, it is not about physical violence, Ali said. “There is a lot of breathing and meditating. There is something for everybody. We can teach people from 9 to 90. Age is not a factor.”

Karate helps youthful practitioners regulate their energy levels and gain a sense of discipline and focus, he said. Young enthusiasts are encouraged to view karate as a sport until they are mature enough to appreciate its status as an art form.

“For those who are older, it gives them a rejuvenation of life and health. A total restoration. Karate helps both ends of the spectrum, and it’s a wonderful thing,” he added.

Ali, of College Hills, hails from a family of 12 (eight boys and four girls) and calls himself “teacher and student.” He remains a student of Grand Master Paul Calligan, who holds a 10th-degree black belt and owns the Ensley-based Calligan’s Karate System. Ali conducts classes in East Lake on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and he assists Calligan at the main location on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.

Master Class

On a recent Saturday morning, a group of nearly a dozen men, women, and children participated in one of Ali’s classes. He offered a running commentary as he instructed the class, which dutifully followed his every word and movement.

“Block … grab … side kick … then punch. Kick up and down and over. … I know that’s work.”

“If you grab too long, there’s more of a chance you will do something disrespectful to the sport … like bite [your opponent].”

“Make sure you come from under the body and up. … Block, grab, and side kick.”

“In most of these maneuvers, we don’t hurt anybody,” said Ali, who holds a seventh-degree black belt.

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“Karate is for health and wellness, as well as self-defense. There are germs in the body and in the living environment. Those germs may be people who intend to do you harm. Right now, you are getting vaccinated against germs,” he told the group.

Student Linda May of Odenville began taking classes 10 years ago, during a tough time in her personal life. She credits the classes with enhancing her mind, body, and spirit.

“It helps every aspect of your life. Karate is not used to try to attack people but for self-defense. It is not always aggressive,” said May, a customer service representative for a software company.

Darrell Muhammad, 51, of Fairfield, was introduced to karate in college, where he also wrestled. He credits Ali’s class with accelerating his recuperation from a blood clot and knee damage following a recent car accident. In addition, he said following tips on exercise from Ali allowed him to improve his range of motion.

Muhammad, a holder of a first-degree black belt, said the class forced him to push beyond his pain level: “When I came back to class I wanted to [excel] because the lower belts look to you for guidance.”

Eric Calhoun, 66, of Pleasant Grove, has been a student for 40 years. He likes the class because it combines several karate styles and has elevated his knowledge of the sport.

“I learned a lot about how to fall, how to take punches and give punches. I have developed my personal skills and teaching skills,” said the Gary, Ind., native, who is a former Birmingham Parking Authority manager.

Men and women enroll in karate classes for different reasons, Ali said.

Women may participate to become physically stronger and learn coordination that can increase focus with jobs and home life. Men, on the other hand, may see karate as a means of regaining vitality and improving the aesthetics of their aging bodies.

“Men also find that karate can help them take leadership of family and community to a whole new level,” said Ali, adding that practitioners appear more disciplined and deserving of front-tier positions in society.

Rewards

Karate classes provide numerous benefits. Every student is not destined to be a karate fighter, Ali said, so instruction, meditation, and herbal recommendations are designed to best fit the needs of the individual.

Nakeya May, 33, began karate 13 and a half years ago to lose weight and enhance her personal appearance. But she learned that karate helps her mind, body, and soul, and it guides her everyday life and helps her handle conflicts.

“I have learned to think before I speak. Martial arts teach you how to be patient and submissive by respecting other people,” said May. “I recommend it to other women my age and younger. Try something different. Plus, in the world we live in, it is very critical to have some type of self-defense skills.”

May, a single mother and an enrollment coordinator at a local junior college, says karate has helped her bond with her son, Kayden, 5, who also takes the class. She credits the sport with boosting her ability to focus and multitask with job and family matters, as well.

Jacqueline Ali, 32, Mustafa Ali’s wife, has been training for three years and appreciates how her husband can work with people of all ages and skill levels, from yellow belt to black belt. She also has firsthand experience with karate’s ability to help people overcome illnesses and injuries.

Jacqueline was in a four-car accident a year and half ago; she lost the ability to walk and was bedridden for about six weeks.

“Sensei [teacher Ali] asked me if I wanted to give up, and I didn’t. … So, I started breathing and mediation exercises and a light workout, and I got my mobility back after six months,” said Jacqueline, a personal banker and native of the Smithfield area who holds a third-degree green belt.

Grand Master Paul Calligan.

Mustafa Ali also has a personal story about healing through karate, which helped him achieve a “miraculous” rebound after a bone marrow transplant in 2004 that caused him to lose some function in an arm and a hand. He says herbs, such as turmeric and garlic, as well as fish oil tablets, apple cider vinegar, and breathing exercises enabled him to recover: “It took a year and a half to regain my health and come from a dark and depressing place.”

Ali, who is recognized throughout Birmingham for his work, said he wants to instill what he calls the black belt mindset—“humility, patience, oneness with oneself”—into students.

Grand Master Calligan said, “[Ali] loves people and is very keen about how they develop character. He is concerned with who they are, and not just about kicking and punching.”