AN INTERVIEW WITH
RACHEL “ROCKY RIVERA SENSEI
By Shihan William Rivera
“The quality of her Goju Ryu can astound even the most adept Karateka.”
“The speed and power of her techniques are exhilarating.”
“Her knowledge of the martial arts is extensive.“
Hello, and welcome to MartialForce.com. I am William Rivera, a Yudansha with over 30 years of martial arts training residing in Staten Island, NY. As a student and friend of Eddie Morales, Shihan, it is a pleasure to introduce an individual who has empowered countless students in their practice and teaching of the Martial Arts. This individual embodies both Empowerment and Hard-Core.
The three comments at the beginning are cumulative of many that have inspired me to write this article and subsequent interview. A Yudansha and Sensei of the Shotokan style made the first two comments at “Al Gotay’s Urban Cup Invitational” in New York (with 25 years competing and teaching he is not easily impressed). I had just finished judging the Masters Division of Kumite when he approached me.
He motioned me towards a martial artist standing a few feet away and mentioned that he had seen her competing in the women’s kata and kumite division. I asked him what he thought and his immediate response was “Wow”. We were both looking at Rachel “Rocky” Rivera Sensei.
The third comment is one which I have heard mentioned throughout the New York City martial arts community in reference to Rachel Sensei. (Although her students and peers refer to her as Shihan, she prefers Sensei. Being an instructor is in her heart and teaching is her life). On Monday September 8, 2003, the comments came to life in meeting Rachel “Rocky” Rivera Sensei.
In a typical training session at her dojo, you will see a very complete system of Goju Ryu Karate being taught. On the third floor of the Julia DeBurgos Cultural Center, located in East Harlem New York, is her dojo, “The United Martial Arts Academy”. Greeting me with a firm handshake and a warm smile was Rachel Sensei. As we entered the large gym, total peace fell upon us, as with one single command, her students (ranging in ages 3 to 40, boys, girls, young men and women) quickly and silently took their places in stance, and collectively saluted us with, “Ush”. awaiting their instructions.
Born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY, Rivera Sensei started with Shotokan at the age of 12. Due to her sensei’s departure, she looked for another school. At 14, she came upon the Ying Yee Kwoon where she met the instructor who she still studies with, Archie Rullan Soke of Rullan Goju Do. Rachel Sensei is a 4th degree black belt in Rullan Goju Do. Over the years, she has attained dan ranks in Tae Kwon Do (2nd degree) and Vee Jitsu (a 3rd degree black belt, she still studies with Grandmaster Prof. Jose A. Velez).
Rachel Sensei is founder and director of the United Martial Arts Academy, which incorporates Rullan Goju-Do, Tae Kwon Do, and Vee Jitsu. She has earned recognition for her involvement in community-based programs on domestic violence and self-defense seminars, and has been interviewed on local and national television shows. She was inducted into the Action Hall of Fame, as well as the Worldwide Martial Arts Hall of Fame.
The following is our interview:
Martialforce: When did you become interested in the Martial Arts and why?
Rachel Rivera: “I started at the age of 12. One day, I was reading an Archie comic book and it contained an ad on karate which piqued my curiosity. My family and I lived in Williamsburg Brooklyn. Growing up in Williamsburg was for many of us, a matter of survival, it was rough and tough turf. As a kid, I always felt I needed something to help me feel protected something that would give me an edge, to get me through those mean streets. Maybe karate would hold the key”.
Martialforce: Is that when you started training in Goju Ryu?
Rachel Rivera: “No, actually, I began training in Shotokan at a small center in Greenpoint Brooklyn, with Fred Corritone Sensei. I trained for two years and earned my green belt, but unfortunately, due to Mr. Corritone’s departure, I found myself looking for another school. Some would call it fate, others luck, and some coincidence I just know I was happy when I came upon new martial arts school just blocks away from my home. The school was Ying Yee Kwoon, located on Roebling St. The instructor was Archie Rullan Sensei, of the USA Goju style. I was then 14 years old and till today, I am still a student of Archie Rullan Soke (Archie Rullan is a Kyoshi in USA Goju and Soke (founder) of Rullan Go-Ju Do)”.
Martialforce: Do you feel that training and competing, which is often looked upon as “aggressive”, compromises your femininity?
Rachel Rivera: “Physical contact can have a level, some would describe as “aggressive” to some degree. I don’t believe that as a result of my training, I am compromising my feminine side If anything, what I get from training and competition, enhances my femininity by making me more self confident, and assured. It gives me the power and strength to believe in myself as a person, and as a woman”.
Rachel Rivera: “Karate should always be pure, and clear cut. There are masters out there who have their reasons, find a need to refine or change movements, techniques, mostly for teaching purposes. In addition, others, have different agendas. The bottom line, is that teaching karate should always re-enforce the basics, in whatever style.
Rather than say, change, I feel it’s more appropriate to say, adapt your method of teaching, say towards your population, like with younger students, so they can catch on with better results. However, always in keeping within the basics. As they become older, re-enforce the old, hard-core methods”.
Martialforce: Is it important as an instructor, to study other styles of martial arts, or to concentrate on your chosen style?
Rachel Rivera: “The beauty of the various styles of karate, is that they complement each other, just as individuals do. I believe that as instructors, we definitely stand to gain knowledge and an improved perception. More importantly, by studying other styles, those qualities acquired in turn enhance our own style, making it more powerful to us. For students, instruction is only as good as the capability of your instructor and what they bring into the dojo”.
Martialforce: What you think is the purpose of kata? Do you have a favorite one?
Rachel Rivera: “ As we have learned, kata is the core of one’s martial arts training. Kata is the methodical training of movements, where emphasis is placed on how the movements should flow. Once you have the kata down, you then learn how to take its components and apply them in practical terms, relative to your training. Seipai can be translated as “18 hands”, which is my favorite kata for competition.
Its footwork is fluid and the techniques emphasize the smooth transition between hard and soft which is inherit in the goju style. Sanchin (The three battles} which develops your physical power, and Tensho (Revolving Hands) containing blocking and trapping movements which teaches you to use an opponent’s energy against themselves, are the two katas I practice daily. These two katas enhance all the others in the system.
Martialforce: Over the years, have you changed the way you teach? Do you teach children differently than to adults?
Rachel Rivera: “ How I approach training my students has not changed. I hold them to the same standards and my expectations are still high today as in earlier years. I have the opportunity to teach children and adults together, and I must tell you, it is a blessing. Along side learning their movements, forms, and discipline, is the higher lesson of karate, teaching respect not just to your sensei, but towards your peers, regardless of their age.
My students truly listen to one another, watch each other, and offer themselves openly without pretense. Oh I’m sure the 17 yr. old brown belt’s head swells as he shows the 30 year old yellow belt (who is a single mother, old enough to be his own), the correct form or stance, and that comes as a result of confidence and respect to teaching. My teaching emphasizes that my students understand the inter-relationships of Goju Ryu and how they can apply them in practical terms, no matter what the age.
When teaching my adult students, the training sessions are longer, harder, and more intense. When my young adult students join the older group, the thing they realize is that I have already put through the same rigorous pace they have become accustom to! Both the kids and adults will go through two + hours of training per session”.
Martialforce: You have been in demand to speak about or give seminars in response to domestic violence and women. What do you present in your seminars that women find most helpful?
Rachel Rivera: “ I believe that when women seek self defense training, they are looking for more than just learning how to get out of threatening situations, if and when they present themselves. Call it a cliché, but women are looking to empower, to put into themselves, a strength that may have been lacking or was never there to begin with. Fear, is powerful, and can be so disabling to a person, doing nothing but re-enforce negative feelings of helplessness.
One of the first things women learn at the seminars is that their presence is a major first step. They look around, they instantly realize that they are not alone, and that gives them a head start towards strength, in numbers. The information I give them is already out there, others have said it, but they appreciate that I decide what’s important FOR THEM, and I give it in simple terms that they can relate to, not in manual language”.
Martialforce: How do you approach women’s self defense training?
Rachel Rivera: “I approach a self-defense training program differently than a one day, or 2 hour seminar situation. With a program, we can do more by first teaching students to concentrate on themselves working out and strengthening the body. Regards of body shape or size, I move on towards simple martial arts techniques, showing how to use them correctly, and why. Women are busy, they have lives don’t want to waste their time In any class, I teach my students common sense basics, from being aware of their surroundings at all times, to knowing how to draw attention so you can move away, by screaming or yelling.
More importantly is teaching my students to respond aggressively to intimidation. By aggressively I mean not to try and over take a larger body closing in on you, but to move your body towards the aggressor, pushing yourself pass through so you can move away quickly from the situation. It also means knowing how to switch from a fear mode, to focusing on doing what is necessary to get you to the point where you can move away. Knowing where the target areas along your aggressor’s centerline are, the eyes, ears, stomach, groin. Locate them so you can deliver a quick kick, pull, or gouge, and break their hold on you”.
Martialforce: Thank you Rachel “Rocky” Rivera Sensei
Edited by: Lydia Alicea
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