By Marilyn Velazquez
Yut. Yi. Sam. Sei. Ng.
The sounds of Chinese counting fill a small dance studio-style classroom in the T Building basement as a group of Brookhaven College students huffed and puffed between each kick and strike.
In unison, they mimic the intricate movements of their instructor, Sifu George Giatrakis, an adjunct faculty, who teaches a self-defense course at Brookhaven.
The class is based on Choy Li Fut, a traditional Shaolin kung fu style that combines the agile footwork of Northern Shaolin with the intricate hand techniques of Southern Shaolin.
Giatrakis said he first took up martial arts at the age of 11, but left it in favor of other sports.
However, at 23 he witnessed an event that changed his life.
He said he witnessed a domestic dispute in the parking lot of his apartment complex one day.
“I was coming out of my third-story apartment and saw some guy beating up his girlfriend on the other side of the fence,” Giatrakis said. “The guy notices me staring over there and his girlfriend runs off. The guy yells ‘Hey punk,’ and comes running over and grabs me by the shirt.”
He tried to calm the assailant down. “The guy was cussing like a sailor and he was drugged. You could see it in his eyes,” Giatrakis said.
The impending fight was prevented by a friend of the assailant, Giatrakis said.
“No one is ever going to grab me like that again,’” he said remembering this reaction to the incident.
The next day, Giatrakis said, he signed up for a martial arts class and began the journey that has brought him to where he is today.
He began with taekwondo under the teaching of Master Chang Pyo.
Five years later, Giatrakis sought out new challenges within the martial arts world.
Desiring a martial arts system that offered more advanced hand techniques, Giatrakis turned to kung fu.
He began training at the Chinese Martial Arts Institute in Dallas in 1990 under the instruction of Silvio Azzolini, becoming a black belt within two years.
In 1994, Azzolini chose Giatrakis to take over ownership of the institute in 1994 after Azzolini left to pursue a medical career.
Over the next 13 years, Giatrakis sharpened his techniques in the art and began to pass down his knowledge to his students.
In 1998, Giatrakis became the first student of Azzolini’s students to obtain a certificate reaching the rank of Sifu by the Taipei Chinese Kung Fu Association and by the World Martial Arts Federation. Sifu, in Chinese means teacher.
Eventually, Giatrakis mastered his system and once again searched to expand his skills.
This system would have to hold true to authentic Shaolin roots, offer extensive levels of training and be overseen by a master renowned for his skill and dedication to martial arts, according to the White Lions website.
He looked to Choy Lit Fut, a system he felt met his immediate and future training needs.
In 2006, he began studying Choy Li Fut and Yan style tai chi under Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong, who has been teaching martial arts in the San Francisco bay area since 1968.
In 2007, Giatrakis founded the White Lion of Shaolin under the Plum Blossom International Federation, one of the largest kung fu organizations in the world, according to the school’s website.
At Brookhaven, Giatrakis teaches his students the basics of Choy Li Fut and self-defense.
Every class session, students practice the skills they learn and expand on them.
Within the martial art, he instructs students in the basic strikes, blocks and kicks. Students practice sei ping ma, or horse stance, to learn to ground themselves and build leg strength. Combat techniques and sparring sessions are also part of the class.
Dana Proulx-Willis, a student, said martial arts made her feel as she did in her early 20s. Now, at 54, she said she found about the class after reading previous coverage about Giatrakis in The Courier.
Proulx-Willis said she saw physical changes in her body after taking his class. She had become much stronger and more flexible, which was her initial goal when starting the classes.
She has attended several of his classes at the martial arts school too, including two weapons classes and tai chi. Proulx-Willis’ favorite was a staff workshop.
She said it was not always about techniques. He integrates life lessons into his teachings as well.
Before the end of each class day, Giatrakis imparts a bit of his wisdom and philosophy to students through morality lessons he calls Lessons of the Day. These lessons, he says, can be applied to kung fu and everyday life situations.
“If I don’t teach philosophy, I’m just training assassins,” Giatrakis says.
“If you’re not actually putting anything behind the punch, it’s never going to be effective,” she said. “He would expand on that and talk about integrity in your life, in your relationships, in your work.”
Proulx-Willis said she appreciated his reminders about integrity, honesty and trust in addition to the kung fu techniques.
“It’s all related,” Proulx-Willis said. “We’re not just physical beings. We’re emotional and spiritual.”
Chris Flood, another of Giatrakis’ students, said he had always been fascinated with kung fu movies. When he saw Brookhaven offered the class, he selected it for his physical education credit.
Flood said Giatrakis pushed students hard.
“Not to the point where you feel like flat out giving up, but to a point where he knows you’re going to get better because of it,” he said. Flood’s favorite part of the class was sparring.
“I don’t just recommend it,” Flood said. “I encourage it. He is an amazing teacher.”