Okay, our next guest has such an inspiring story and a wonderful person. He is Ninja Nguyen, author of Step on the Mat. He shares his life story and martial arts adventure with us beginning when he was a small child in Vietnam.
He tells us a bit about his remarkable journey from his war-torn homeland to a refugee camp and finally to America, where he’s now the successful owner of a Boston dojo.
More importantly, he shares how although the martial arts can be exciting and fun for young people, the valuable lessons found in the routines and rituals can bring joy and purpose to everything else you do in life.
Ninja Nguyen: I wrote that book because I feel like everybody has a different struggle in their life, and I think a lot of time, we don’t look at the struggle that makes us strong. For me, as a martial artist, I’ve seen that daily life from parent, to student, from young kids from two years old up to all the way to like 65 years old.
I’ve seen the struggle in their life. I think for me, I know that when they come in, they already decide to want to be better. However, they need to find a way for them to be successful in their journey in either martial arts or fitness or just a spiritual journey.
Rae Williams: Tell me a little bit about your journey with marital arts. How did you arrive to this place?
Ninja Nguyen: Well, back when I was born in Vietnam, during the war, my family are fishermsn. They moved from town to town during the Vietnam war. We had 10 kids in the family, we have five boy and five girls.
Usually, a boy, when you turn to a certain age, the communists at that time, they come over and they take your kid. Basically, you have no right to volunteer yourself, they volunteer you. So, they come and pick you. As a parent, they move you to a place hide you, so you don’t work to be in the military.
At that time, each day, I have a fortune to basically see my brother—and then the next day, I don’t see my brother.
So, as a young boy, I always questioned, “What happened? Why don’t I see my brother?” As a young boy, I was curious. My dad didn’t want to tell me where they smuggled my brothers. At that time, I didn’t really know, and then the only way for them to put me in a place, keep me busy, so I don’t question them. At that time, they brought me to a place at the martial arts gym, but it’s not really a gym, it’s like somebody’s backyard, you know? They have like a studio. Basically, you just train in the dirt and there’s like an awning over. That’s about it.
That’s how I discovered what martial art was. But at that time, I wasn’t even thinking about growing older, becoming a martial artist. At that time, I was just curious as a young boy and came into learn to be more disciplined and almost like a schedule each day. You have to have priorities, so by that way, they keep you busy, not to ask questions.
Life Lessons from Martial Arts
Rae Williams: What were some of the very first lessons that you began to take from martial arts, maybe without realizing them since you were a lot younger?
Ninja Nguyen: At martial arts at that time, I learned how to punch and kick, that’s for sure. But I learned to basically put your flexibility to a level that you normally don’t see yourself. And at that time, when I learned martial arts, it wasn’t about learning to be disciplined, it was more like learning the sport.
However, throughout a sport, you learn to either learn to have somebody hitting you hard to discipline you, or it’s not the philosophy first, you know? It’s teaching you to punch first.
Then throughout that, I learned throughout the day, it wasn’t like a long journey of each day, come in to be one day to be a teacher, you know? Just each day, come in, train, and go home, and then that’s about it.
But over when I was in my country, it was like, the martial art was more for the health. It wasn’t to own a business one day.
Rae Williams: What is the bottom line, the message that you’re driving home in your book that people can take action on?
Ninja Nguyen: I know for myself, in life, you have a choice to choose in or choose out. That’s what I call when you step on a mat. It’s either you bow in to acknowledge that you’re going to train or you bow out because you’re not going to train. The way the martial arts teach me was like, when you bow, you have to commit it where you’re going to go, and you have to acknowledge that.
I think a lot of time people, when they bow in, they don’t really – they choose in to do whatever it is, but at the same time, they don’t know what they choose in for. It’s almost like, if I was to make a promise to you, I need to know what the promise is. I need to know what I’m going to deliver to you.
I think a lot of times, people choose in, but they don’t choose in as in a whole. They have to know why they choose in and what the commitment they have to work on. It’s not about your struggle or not, because I think in life, you have to struggle to really see where you are.
A lot of times, people are really good at hiding their struggle, and to martial arts, I believe in general, you should be able to show your struggle. You need to see that to see how great your accomplishment is.
Principles for Everyday Life
Rae Williams: When I look at your chapters, they’re all different aspects of training. How did you take those kinds of principles and apply them here?
Ninja Nguyen: For me, it’s really important to kind of like settle yourself, to know where you’re committed to. I think a lot of times, people wake up, let’s say they wake up in the morning. They don’t have gratitude.
You don’t have to close your eyes to really meditate. Some people can do a walk, some people can read a book, some people can pray. It’s different, but I think a lot of times, people wake up, they don’t gratitude themselves, take a moment to breathe.
For me, as a martial artist, I recognize that, because throughout the training, you have to see yourself where you go, how you feel each day, and how you’re going to start. The point is, you have to know where you are before you start your day. Whatever that struggle is. I think as a martial artist, I’ve seen that every single day, through parents, to myself and to kids. I’ve seen that all the time.
Rae Williams: What happens when people are not reflecting the attitude and the principles that they should have?
Ninja Nguyen: So, I use this a lot in my gym. We have a mirror in my gym, and I always tell everybody, “There’s a reason why we have a mirror. So, we can see ourselves to see what we need work on.” It’s easy for us to point a finger to someone else, what we need to work on, but we will point at ourselves. As a martial artist, when you step on a mat, you will see that.
Let’s say if I was sparring with you, let’s say me and you will fight. If I was cocky, sooner or later, I will get hit by you.
In life, I always believe that you have to learn the sport. Let’s say you climb high, don’t forget the people around you who brought you up. It doesn’t matter, they have talent or not. Even if they spend a little bit time with you. You have something that they empower you by.
Training, you have to see that. It’s not about right or wrong, it’s about how would you empower the person around you? Your wife, your kids, your husband, your neighbor.
I think that’s very important as a martial artist, for me, I see it every single day.
Coming to America
Rae Williams: How did eventually coming to America come into your story, and how did that inform your view of everything?
Ninja Nguyen: When I was back home, we walked around bare feet. I came over here, I see the snow and I see nice buildings. In my family, we have one big bed that everybody sleep on the bed, you know, one bed. We have open windows, but we don’t have like windows that have glasses.
So, when I came to US, I’m like, “Wow, that’s awesome opportunity.” You see high buildings, and then I always feel like everybody’s rich over here. For me, I feel like I did not know the language, and the only thing for me to really understand and communicate was what I call now silent language. For me, as a silent language is that I have to communicate with somebody doing the same thing as me as a martial artist.
I went to find a couple of gym that I see and they punch, they throw a punch, they throw kicks and I’m familiar with, but I didn’t understand the language. That’s how I learned the language. The English language. Based on how they talk to each other from let’s say they throw a punch, they call it punch, let’s say. So, that’s how I learn my language.
But throughout that, I was more like coming over here, have a little bit talent and hard work. And then I see the struggle to my life, because I was as a martial artist. I was cocky, I always have people around me who are martial artists that really good, that empower me to push harder. However, I lost a little bit because all I was looking for at that time was to be rich and to make a lot of money.
But in that same time, when I did that, I forgot one principle that as a true martial art always teaches, was the character. How well you carry your character, how well you respect the other person. I didn’t really understand the concept. So through my struggle, in a short period of time, I make so much money but at the same time, I looked down. I didn’t respect certain people.
And then what happened? I crashed. When I crashed, I realized that as a martial artist, when you’re into the time in your life that was dark, everybody who was saying that they’re your friend and then you find out they’re not your friend, you know?
Then you realize you have two choices, okay? You either change your life or keep doing the same thing. I always feel like you don’t have that time.
I was living in Boston and I met my wife and I remember she said this to me. She said, “You know, we need to change because you’re not going to change until we move.”
So, we moved somewhere, to Arizona, and my life did not change, even I moved the environment. But reality wasn’t the environment I need to change, it was me I need to change.
Then at that time, I invested in 2008, I remembered this as when I lost everything. You know, when you make fast money, things come back to you really fast and then the only thing that really changed my life to make me who I am today now, it was one person that came into my life in 2008. My daughter came.
It was like August 2008, she came, I was broke between my wife and I. I was like, “Oh my god, I don’t know what I’m doing.” And I look at this face, and all she had was love, compassion, creativity, everything you ever seen in this baby.
I look at myself and I said, “What happened to me? I can’t be the person that has to take care of this person, and I can’t live the life that lying or making fast money and don’t care about anybody beside myself.”
I go back to Boston in 2009 and my wife asked me. She said, “If you go back there you’re going to be the same person when I first met you.”
I said, “No I am going to make a promise to you that you are going to see me change” and then when I came back, I didn’t have any money. I remember when I gave people the opportunity, people turned around, didn’t give me the opportunity. Because I have talent, I have all of that, but at the same time I didn’t have a place to stay.
I went to one of my students, and I was teaching for him just to help out, so by that way I could have a place to hang out. And then I helped him and then I remember my life within six months has changed. My wife came back to me and she said, “I want to be with you.”
And then at that time, a short period of time I believe, this and this is what I have seen in me. In any relationship, in yourself, if you do not have success with yourself, your own family, your business would not be a success. I do believe that. I do believe that because I have seen it in me.
In a short period of time, my wife came back, and I had my second daughter. I even named my daughters, the first one was Patience. The second was Harmony. I remember my life was all going on so high.
That is like, I accomplished everything, and my wife came back, my life was amazing, and then at that time God just tested me. One thing was that they took my dad and mom away. And my son came, and that is why I named my son Sky because I always believed that in life no matter what happens, you always look up.
And the people who supported that day in day out, that be with you, knowing that they keep what they say to you, that they would be there for you and support you. And that’s why I always believe that you can be success, but if you look down on people you will fail.
One Thing to Remember
Rae Williams: What do you think is the most important principle, the most important thing that someone can take that you took with you throughout this whole journey?
Ninja Nguyen: I have the five moral things that I always live up to, and the five rule that we have is effort. No matter what you do, you got to give a 100% effort. And the etiquette that no matter who you are with, who you spend time with, you got to give that person and yourself etiquette.
And then the character, and I am not talking about making a lot of money. I am talking about the character of how you portray yourself, to how you look up to, how do you want your neighbor, your family, you wife to be proud standing next to you and say, “Wow, he’s got a great character.”
And then the most important than anything is sincere. How well you treat each other with sincerity. And I think as a martial artist, a lot of times people coming would say something. For example, I tell you take a class, but I am not sincere to support you the whole journey. If you come into my life, number one, I have to be grateful because you give me permission to be with you or hang out with you, or even now, we’re talking and you give me sincere time. So, I have to be sincere to give you the same.
And then I think the last one I think we all forget is the self-control. I am not talking about self-control by hitting someone or anything. I am talking about your behavior, like I say this a lot in my book, “What if somebody cut you off on the highway, how would you react? What if somebody is walking by you, they bump into you how would you react?” Because you have to understand where that person is coming from before you even lose that.
I think throughout martial arts, you have the opportunity to practice that day in day out, every single day. You cannot really put into action or practice better if you are not in the environment that you practice and can implement. As a martial artist, you implement that every single day because you spar with the other teammate. You work, you do self-defense, or you communicate with the other person. You have to make sure that they don’t have injuries, so you are not hurting them on how you control them.
And then the other one is that we use all the time is that the four step. What we do is what we call the attention stand. And I always teach a student the attention stand, we teach focus. And then when you bow, what does bow teach? Respect.
And the ready stand is ready to take actions. The other one we call the fighting stand. There is what we call the commitment stand. So those stands, a lot of times people say it, but they don’t apply it.
In my gym, the student will recycle that, and then we apply it and then we test it. Because when you test it, it is almost like if you read something to me, if I take the information and if I don’t write it down, that is not really as great memory if I just listen to you. I don’t have 100% of the word, the definition, the meaning behind that.
So, as a martial artist, you do that day in, day out, day in, day out. And I always tell everybody that martial arts or fitness is almost like you’re dating someone. If you put two days in, how would you get that out in relationship? How would you put your time in to meditate? Would you want to do five minutes? Would you want to do stretching?
So that is why the concept of why I wrote the book.
A Challenge for Listeners
Rae Williams: If you had to present a challenge, one thing they can do from your book to change their life, what would that be?
Ninja Nguyen: I would say the biggest thing is whatever they do they need to understand what they committed to and why. I think a lot of times they need to understand why it is important to them and what’s important. Why they do it, and what is important to them.
I wanted the same thing as everybody. I love compassion, respect, and excitement, and I think I can name a bunch of them. But I think I want the same thing as everybody wants.
I think that a lot of times each one of us is, when we fall into struggle, then we understand what we needed. I remember from my country coming over here, I didn’t have money in my pocket. We don’t even eat, like we eat breakfast, dinner. That was it, and throughout the middle of the day we have maybe fruit.
Coming here, I think a lot of times what people do is that they have a tendency to spend so much money on other things, but they don’t spend money on themselves. What I mean is that they want to put money in the bank, but they don’t want to put the money in themselves to take care of their health, take care of the people that they love. Everybody wants to live forever, but they don’t want to do that.
My book, the way I wrote the book is that for people to see the clue. When you read my book, it is just a clue for you. And then my hope is that people understand it and then they can use themselves. They don’t have to use martial arts to really understand that, but if they read the book, they can do any other sport and I believe that we do the same thing.
For example, talking about bow. We do that every single day. Somebody cutting in, you either let them go in or either you don’t let them go in, but the choice that you have to make, you have to understand that.
Rae Williams: How can people contact you if they want to learn more?
Ninja Nguyen: They can go on my website. It is xtremeninja.com.