Dan Inosanto on Staying Active and Effective in Your Golden Years, Part 1

Dan Inosanto has been a martial arts icon for decades — witness his four Black Belt Hall of Fame inductions!

You may know of Dan Inosanto from his early days when he was one of the first kenpo black belts under Ed Parker, from the years he stood at Bruce Lee's side in the jeet kune do world, from the decades he spent researching the martial arts of Southeast Asia or from his ongoing study of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in which he holds a third-degree black belt under the Machados.

Dan Inosanto truly has been there and done that — several times over. Yet even though he's in his 80s, he maintains a schedule chock-full of international seminars and private lessons, as well as the hours of weekly classes he teaches at his Marina del Rey, California-based academy.


Inosanto made time to do this interview with Dr. Mark Cheng (who also serves as one of his physicians) so all Black Belt readers can share his recipe for success in martial arts.

Black Belt: Your schedule is a blistering one — for a person of any age. Just with the hours of private lessons you take during the week, most people would be hard-pressed to keep up. And then there's the travel and teaching you do.

Dan Inosanto: You really need a team of people to help keep you going. In my case, I've got my wife Paula, who's not only a gifted instructor and more talented than I am in some arts but also the one who oversees the business end [of] the academy and the seminars. Without her keeping me straight, I'd be a mess. That's really freed me up to do what I love: explore and develop.

Black Belt: In your explorations, what helps you stay healthy and physically active?

Dan Inosanto: There are so many factors that are part of that. Nutrition is one aspect that I've only recently started paying attention to. It wasn't until maybe my 70s when I started really studying nutrition. Before my 70s, I pretty much ate what I wanted, when I wanted and how I wanted. But especially now, since I've had a few flare-ups of gout and experienced how painful and debilitating that can be, I'm more careful about what I eat.

Black Belt: How are you able to be careful about what you eat when you're traveling?

Dan Inosanto: I use those days as my cheat days. If I'm in a country or place that I know well and can get healthier food, then of course I'll try to get that instead, but I don't stress about it too much. I try to listen to what my body wants and then see how my body reacts.

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Don't misunderstand me, though. I'm not saying I just give in to any craving randomly. I try to allow myself some leeway when I'm craving something healthier. Maybe one morning, I'll feel like grapes for breakfast, but maybe it'll be cherries the next day. I still allow myself red meat once in a while, and when I'm on the road for seminars, I still have coffee. Everything's about balance.

Black Belt: Is there a particular diet or style of eating that you subscribe to?

Dan Inosanto: No. I think what's best for one person isn't always what's best for someone else. Some people can get away with eating things that would make someone else sick. This isn't my area of expertise, but I think it has to do with each individual's environment and body chemistry. If you don't have enough of the right enzymes to break down something you eat, even if someone else calls it "healthy," you might have a reaction to it.

Black Belt: On a physical level, what are some realizations that have helped you stay in the game?

Dan Inosanto: Recovery is so important. I'm lucky — I have a whole team of people, among whom you're included, Doc — who keep me moving and keep my body functioning well enough to do more or less what I want. In fact, I think you or someone you introduced me to said something to the effect that for every hour you spend training and expending energy, you need to spend an hour recharging and recovering.

Obviously, it's unrealistic to think that every time you take an hour lesson or training session, you need an hour massage. Recharging and recovering might include a whole bunch of things that fall under the heading of "restorative." That can mean receiving treatment from someone in the form of chiropractic or massage, it can mean a gentle stretching session that helps you feel good afterward, or it can mean meditating or taking a nap. You basically want to create a balance between the hours you spend on energy output and energy input.

Black Belt: Have your own ideas about what's useful and what's useless in martial arts training changed over the years?

Dan Inosanto: Oh, of course! I've told you the story about how Bruce Lee came with me one time to professor Ark Y. Wong's kung fu class. At the point in the class when professor Wong had us practicing the horse stance, Bruce rolled his eyes and yawned. He made fun of some of the classical exercises we were doing.

Back then, we thought those strict horse stances were just to test your patience or to build up your legs, but now I realize they did a lot more than that. For example, a good horse stance opens up your hips, which takes strain off your knees and lower back. If your hips are healthy, you can walk and move. If your hips aren't healthy, you can't do a lot of the low postures, either.

Black Belt: Speaking of low postures, have you found that doing ground work has helped your body?

Dan Inosanto: I owe a lot of my health and ability to move to Roger and Rigan Machado. Roger's yoga-jitsu, which is a fusion of yoga and the fundamental moves in BJJ, really helped me to get my hips moving again. When you move and roll on the ground, it kind of massages you. You also have to push against the ground in directions that are different than you would while standing, so it teaches your body to develop strength and mobility in ways it ordinarily wouldn't if you just trained standing all the time.

That's part of what I like about silat, too. A lot of the movements in silat are good for the hips and the spine. So when you're doing ground-based movements like you see in harimau (tiger) techniques, you're not only practicing fighting but also working on preserving your mobility and getting a great workout.

Some people hate having to get up and down all the time and say that nobody sits with their butts on the ground to fight. What if you get knocked down and still have to fight, or what if you trip or slip in a situation where you still need to defend yourself? Fighting isn't just going to happen in the ranges or positions you're most comfortable with, so you have to familiarize yourself with the widest range of possibilities.

Black Belt: Would it be fair to say that the usefulness of different moves and training methods can change according to the context?

Dan Inosanto: Definitely — like the sinawali (double-stick drills in kali) when we do the "umbrella" combinations. I used to not like doing the umbrella with the full range of motion until I couldn't do it without effort or pain. That's when the words of the old men made more sense.

They used to say that the double-stick training was "magical." I didn't get it until I started seeing how a lot of those striking patterns can actually heal the body. These days, you've got famous physical therapists like Gray Cook teaching people Indian-club exercises to help rehab shoulder problems. We've pretty much got those movements and patterns in the kali double-stick work.

(To be continued.)

Interview by Dr. Mark Cheng • Photos by Ian Spanier

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