Yang studied martial arts as a young man in Taiwan, learning White Crane Qigong, Tai Chi, and Long Fist Qigong under revered Grandmasters. He came to the United States from Taiwan in 1974, where he got his Ph.D. in engineering at Purdue University.

After six years he gave up his career as an engineer to follow his dream of preserving ancient Chinese martial arts, culture, and philosophy by opening schools that would teach selected students in the time-honored way.

In addition to founding 45 schools in 18 countries, Yang has published more than 60 books and 80 videos on various martial art disciplines. His international schools are now under the direction of his son, while Yang focuses on developing the Salmon Creek center, which opened in 2008. Students must be removed from the distractions of society, Yang explained, as the purpose of learning martial arts is to “overcome yourself.” Popular culture portrays martial arts in a shallow way, without true feeling, beauty or discipline, Yang said.

Eventually he hopes to have 15 resident students pursuing the full 10-year curriculum, as well as holding seminar programs during the summer vacation period, and offering classes and training to local residents. At present, five students reside at the Salmon Creek retreat center, three from the United States, one from Chile, and one from Switzerland. They will live at the center and follow a demanding curriculum of physical, mental, and spiritual training nine months a year for 10 years.

The school year includes two vacation periods, a month in the winter and two months in the summer. Sundays are free days during which students may leave the center and do whatever they wish. Teacher and students share responsibilities, including housekeeping, cooking meals and raising organic vegetables in the garden and greenhouse. “We are like a father and his sons,” Yang said.

Physical conditioning is particularly challenging. Nearly every day the students run a mile up the steep mountain road carrying weights. Ultimately they should be able to run the mile in 12 minutes carrying 50 lbs.

Students also train using ropes, weights, and punching bags. They learn to jump over fences on the property, balance on rails and stacks of bricks, and strengthen their grip by tossing and catching paving squares. Students spend several hours each day training in the arts of Qi Gong and Tai Ji Kuan (tai chi). During their second year, weapons training is introduced.

YMAA Retreat Center greenhouse
YMAA Retreat Center greenhouse

But martial arts are only one aspect of the curriculum. Outside teachers come to the YMAA center for three-week sessions in Chinese language and cooking, music of all kinds, business management, and media skills including video and DVD-making. Students learn to write well and to organize their thoughts. Each month one of the students writes an article on aspects of their training for Kung-fu Tai Chi magazine, an international martial arts journal. The students are also creating instructional videos to include on the center’s website.

Yang and his students particularly enjoy music, playing many instruments during their free time, in addition to formal music classes by visiting teachers. “Without music there is no life,” Yang said.

Additionally, Yang requires his students to be working for college degrees in subjects of their choice, largely through online schools. YMAA students must be prepared to take care of themselves in society, Yang explained, so they need to develop communications skills, be able to manage a budget, and earn their livings.

Yang initially selected five students from 142 applicants. To be considered, an applicant had to demonstrate a serious interest in martial arts and commitment to the demanding 10-year program, “not just kids who don’t want to go to college,” Yang said. One student in the original class left voluntarily after seven months, and another was unable to continue after an automobile accident. A student from Peru was not allowed to return to the United States after visiting his family because the YMAA center is not accredited and therefore does not meet the criteria for a student visa.

Zach, a former tax accountant from San Francisco, found out about the center from a student in his Reiki class who had read Yang’s books. “This is an opportunity for growth on many levels,” Zach said. “I wanted to do something artistic and physical rather than sit behind a desk all day.”

Jachym from Switzerland said that the YMAA center offers a way to develop one’s self through meditation and training, focusing on the whole human being. He is also working toward a degree in mathematics.

Yang purchased the Salmon Creek property in 2005 with the help of local real estate agent Jeannette Dwyer. He had been looking for land in the northeast, south, and southwest of the United States without luck for some time when a friend suggested California. Although he thought California would be too expensive, Yang agreed to take three days to explore before flying back to Taiwan. On the first and second days he looked in Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa without success.

By now Yang, whose flight was leaving San Francisco the following day, was ready to give up the search. One of his sisters, who lives in San Francisco, wanted to see the redwoods, so they headed north. Arriving in Garberville, he happened to see an ad for 240 acres at an acceptable price in the window of Madrone Realty. Unfortunately, because it was Sunday, the office was closed.

Just then Dwyer arrived with her husband, “Solar Bob” Schaer. She intended to quickly run into the office to pick up an incoming fax before she and Schaer headed off to Shelter Cove to celebrate their anniversary. When Dwyer heard about Yang’s intentions, she pointed out that the land being advertised was too far inland, too hot and dry, for a martial arts school that required rigorous physical training. She knew of a property in Salmon Creek that had only been on the market for a few days that she thought would work better. Dwyer offered to show them the property on the following day, but Yang couldn’t wait because his flight was leaving from San Francisco that Monday.

Yang and his sister convinced Dwyer that they were serious buyers, so she and Schaer unloaded their surfboards from the truck to make room for passengers. When he saw the Salmon Creek land, completely undeveloped at the time, Yang knew he had found the perfect location. Eventually, with help from his family, Yang purchased 240 mountainous acres as well as a separate parcel of five completely flat acres bordering the creek. The following year he sold his publishing company to pay back the debt to his relatives.

”If we had arrived in Garberville just a little later, or if Jeannette had been just a little earlier, it would never have happened,” Yang said.

YMAA Retreat Center meditation gazebo
YMAA Retreat Center meditation gazebo

Dwyer, Schaer, builder Kurt Kirkpatrick, and many other members of the community pitched in to help make the center a reality, helping the students with building projects and donating supplies and equipment. “People here are not like people in the city,” Yang said, adding that the community has made him and his students feel comfortable in the area.

Yang would like to see more local residents, especially young people, come to the center and participate in some of the classes and physical training. Yang’s second-year students also hope to start classes for high school students at South Fork High School.

Because the YMAA center operates on a shoestring, fees will be charged for participation in classes, probably $10 per hour. Fees could be reduced as the number of participants increases. The YMAA Retreat Center is a 501(3)(c) non-profit corporation overseen by a board of directors. Contributions would be most welcome and will be tax deductible.

Anyone interested in attending training at the center, or who would like to make a donation, or who is simply interested in learning more, should visit the center’s website, ymaa-retreatcenter.org. Inquiries should be directed to [email protected], or Dr. Yang can be reached directly at 707-502-8739.

Source: Redwood Times, www.redwoodtimes.com/garbervillenews/ci_14278622

Read more about the YMAA Retreat Center here.