From working as a wildlife biologist for the province of B.C. to teaching science to high school students in Alaska, Mike Panian has an eclectic and varied background that he now brings to his work with youth in Vernon.
Panian, 61, is a practitioner of western martial arts, and he is using his background to teach the art through a local yoga studio and to use it as the basis for workshops for both youth and adults.
“All along, I have focused on the idea that character matters and that human growth and development in the martial arts is an essential component,” said Panian, who grew up in Pennsylvania, and has been a Canadian citizen since 2000. “It is not just about fighting or dogmatic styles.
“Western martial arts are martial arts that originated in Europe and Scandinavia. It includes swordfighting with long sword, broadswords, rapiers and other edged weapons as well as stick fighting, wrestling and pugilism such as boxing and savate (known as French boxing, it uses hands and feet as weapons).”
Panian began teaching workshops through Arise Yoga in Vernon because he said there is a similarity between how the physical pursuit of yoga has a personal growth component similar to that of martial arts.
“In fact, there is a link between the history of yoga and the history of the martial arts in Asia,” said Panian.
With a master’s in life science and a PhD in zoology and physiology as well as graduate training in clinical psychology, Panian has taught classes at Pennsylvania State, North Carolina and University of Wyoming in biology and physiology, and has taught high school science in Alaska and the Marshall Islands.
“I taught for 20 years, moved to Canada in ‘91 and worked for the government for 20 years. I had been interested in Canada since I was a kid. I found a book report I wrote in Grade 5 and it was about B.C. I had a bucket list: move to Alaska and then B.C., which feels like home.”
Panian retired early from his work as a wildlife biologist with the Ministry of Environment to give him the opportunity to pursue other interests.
He began practising martial arts in his 20s and said he was lucky to find a karate group back then that was tough and realistic yet also open to the idea that martial arts was about more than just fighting.
“At that time, the average teacher had only a few years of experience. I walked into a practice session one day at the first university I went to and there were 100 people in the gym, it was really intense and it was very serious and I turned around and walked out.
“I moved to a new university for my master’s and met an instructor who told me if I was really serious to come back in a month and he’d teach me. When I started practising in earnest, I was taught that you are stronger than you think you are; another is that you are responsible for the consequences of your actions and that your mind, body, spirit are all different aspects of the same person.
“I got into it at a time when karate and other martial arts were just becoming known. It was all exciting and fresh, and as I’m getting older it continues to interest me.”
He also began fencing as a student at Penn State at the same time. He continued to pursue both things and along the way became a wrestling coach and studied a variety of other martial arts, including boxing, jiu jitsu, judo, aikido and tai chi.
“I’m still working as a wrestling coach and still wrestling myself. My intention is to be as active as I can.”
Over the past 20 years he has studied European martial arts of the Middle Ages.
“There is a fascinating back story about how the sword arts of the knights have been rediscovered and how people are trying to transform them into a legitimate martial art.”
As a boy growing up near Pittsburgh, Pa., Panian learned about martial arts through his father, who had been in the shore patrol in the navy and was frequently called on to break up bar fights.
“When I was a kid I had a lot of incidents with other kids so one day my dad took me out to the backyard and showed me some judo moves. The next day, I went to school and a kid picked on me and I threw him to the ground. Right then I fell in love with the potential and fell in love with the sport.
“In those days, when you were a kid you just dealt with it, although I’m actually a soft, sensitive person. The thing martial arts does is it gets us to face real fears; you have to look at the darkness and accept it, taste it and feel the fear. Kids can learn that they are stronger than they think.”
Panian has offered several workshops in Vernon, one for girls ages 12 to 15, Facing Fear Through Martial Arts, and for adults The Martial Way: Uncovering Strength and Spirit with Martial Arts
There are three directions he hopes to take his interest and experience: seminars for martial arts; self-defence; and starting a group for western martial arts practice.
“I want to offer seminars for martial arts as a way of character development and human potential development. I also want to encourage other martial arts teachers to help people to remind them that martial arts can do this regardless of what they teach.
“With self-defence, it’s not about ending up in a fight, it’s about facing fears and facing emotional challenges.”
Panian recently did some work with students at Vernon Community School, where he gave a presentation on martial arts, western martial arts in particular, and was then asked to be a mentor to several students for a month.
“The kids in the school were polite and worked hard. They were interested in both western martial arts and sword fighting, but also in self defence.
“We talked about things such as facing fears and character values there as well.”
For more information on any of Panian’s upcoming workshops, see his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/martialenergywork