by Sheila Julson
Joe Schaefer, Ph.D. and founder of Austin Kung Fu, was a rising star in the science field during the 1990s. As a doctorate candidate in neurophysiology at the University of Texas – Austin, he was awarded Young Researcher of the Year in 1996 and had penned articles published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Yet he walked away from it to follow his long-time passion—sharing the physical and mental benefits of kung fu and tai chi with others.
Schaefer grew up in an Indiana town of 4,000 residents and was often drawn to unusual and exotic things. When his hometown’s first kung fu studio opened, he began taking classes. During his first year at Indiana University Bloomington, he delved into Chinese culture and philosophy, which intensified his interest in martial arts. In Bloomington, Schaefer studied under kung fu Master Sin Kwang Thé.
After earning his Bachelor of Science in biology degree in 1991, he and his wife Sheryl moved to Austin to pursue grad studies at UT. Schaefer didn’t want to lose access to Thé’s instruction, but Thé told Schaefer that if he started his own kung fu club on campus, he’d occasionally travel to Texas to teach classes. “I started the kung fu club mostly to keep learning from my teacher,” Schaefer laughs, “but the club eventually grew, and kung fu became my life and not just a hobby.”
Schaefer excelled in the field of neuroscience and received accolades for his research in cellular mechanisms underlying behaviors. The highlight was an awards presentation where he gave the keynote address and received postdoctoral offers from labs to join their research teams. By the following morning, the thrill from the evening had already waned. “It wasn’t as fulfilling as teaching martial arts, and at a time when I should have had the ultimate experience, I didn’t,” Schaefer reflects. “I felt I had a bigger impact on people by teaching martial arts than I would have had in science.”
Austin Kung Fu had grown to 200 students by the time Schaefer graduated with his doctorate degree in 1997. Today, Austin Kung Fu has a location in North and South Austin with kung fu and tai chi classes for adults and kids. Kung fu Masters Paul Davis and Ben Bender teach, along with Schaefer, a Senior Master, seventh degree black belt. Sheryl is co-owner of the school and is within six months of achieving sixth degree black belt, making her one of the highest-ranking women in their style in the nation.
Their average adult student age is 25 to 30 years old. For tai chi, which promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movement, ages shift toward 45-plus. Schaefer says many seniors enjoy take tai chi classes to help improve balance. There are 160 children enrolled in the kung fu’s kids’ classes between their two locations. Schaefer strives for an approachable ambiance so students feel connected to their instructors and with each other.
Schaefer blends his background in neuroscience with his teaching. “I think the students respect me on multiple levels because of my education and the way I speak and present the material,” he says. “I taught neurophysiology, my wife taught physiology, and we can communicate, teach and present the material in different ways that connects with everybody at different angles. Being a scientist, I can explain things so they make sense, and students trust me.”
The external/physical aspect of Chinese martial arts involves what people typically think of as martial arts: punching and kicking and Chinese weapons. Schaefer says kung fu training increases confidence, self-understanding and empowerment as a student moves from one skill to next. The internal family of Chinese martial arts starts with tai chi, which is slower moving and promotes relaxation, clarity, awareness and focus on being in the moment and freeing the mind of future worries.
After observing how some people have barriers to achieving meditative states during tai chi, Schaefer became certified in the Open Focus technique. “Open Focus applies neurofeedback techniques; it’s like a Western version of tai chi,” he says. “When I use Open Focus tactics in a tai chi class, students that just walked in from a stressful day find focus and relaxation within seconds.”
After practicing kung fu and tai chi for over 30 years, Schaefer still holds a deep passion for helping people become their best selves through the physical and mental discipline of martial arts. He views his work as transforming people, and he has over 100 active black belt students in Austin that have been dedicated to his classes for an average of 10 to 15 years.
He’s also seen kung fu build confidence in kids. “I watched kung fu help kids get through the challenges of growing up, whether it was difficult classes, academics or trouble with other kids,” Schaefer says. “With martial arts, if a student is dedicated, they will feel successful and achieve rank and respect within our community. They may feel like a misfit in other areas of life, but when they walk through the door here and work their way to a second or third degree black belt, they feel like they belong.”
Austin Kung Fu has two locations at 2316 Rutland Dr., Ste. D-1, in North Austin, and 5214 Burleson Rd., Ste. 211, in South Austin. For more information, call 512-339-8978 (north) or 512-445-7543 (south) or visit AustinKungFuCenter.com.