Kicking it with the zen master

Kicking it with the zen master


Sitting cross-legged on the soccer field at Pierce College, martial arts instructor Nathan Carlen, 38, breathes in the early evening air. Dressed in a crisp karate gi—the traditional robes worn by a martial arts practitioner—Carlen is the image of calm and collected.

Carlen has been a fixture in the kinesiology department for 12 years. Known for his energy and approachable demeanor, Carlen is a far cry from the man he was when he began his journey.

As a child Carlen was subject to bouts of anger which landed him in trouble at school. It was when Carlen met Mark Cox that his attitude changed.

Cox was the karate instructor for the children at Rocky Peak Church. When he was approached by Carlen’s mother, Cox told her that it was time to put “her foot down.”

While Cox was tough on Carlen when it came to his training he was very personable off the floor. He was strict with his students because he wanted to use martial arts as a way to help them grow.

Part of this training was learning to do things that would challenge both Carlen’s physical abilities as well as his patience.

In his teens, Carlen was “forced to teach” a kid’s karate class though he did so with limited enthusiasm. He was not fond of working with younger students. However, this changed as Carlen’s passion for the sport evolved.

Coaching children helped him develop more passion for karate. Carlen began to realize the he had finally found the place he belonged—helping students find their potential the same way Cox had done for him.

After graduating from high school Carlen hoped to enlist with the armed forces. When he was rejected, a sense of listlessness began to creep in.

Looking for some direction, Carlen enrolled at Pierce College. Two of his friends who had also studied under Cox convinced him to take a karate class. There he met Dean Pickard.

Pickard began his career at Pierce he was a professor in the philosophy department. He was approached to teach in the kinesiology department after the previous karate instructor had passed away from a stroke.

Pickard was a founder of the United States Karate League, a large and prestigious martial arts organization.

“[Pickard] was an old-fashioned instructor and one of the most naturally talented martial artists,” Carlen said.

Carlen began training with Pickard in 1997. Four years later he became Pickard’s class assistant. Under the seasoned instructors tutelage, Carlen earned both his first and second degree black belts.

When Pickard retired Carlen was chosen to fill his mentor’s shoes.

Although he does not specialize in one specific type of martial art, Carlen teaches the three main styles—American Tang Soo Do, Krav Maga, and Kali.

It is Carlen’s hope to teach his students martial arts as well as skills that could be used beyond the gymnasium. And as is with all things earned, Carlen reminds his students that learning these physical forms takes time.

Carlen does not expect perfection at the start of a semester. Positivity and a level head are key to success.

“It’s an art and it takes practice so be patient with yourself,” Carlen said. “Learn to laugh when you make a mistake because we’re all going to make them and life gets really hard if you can’t laugh at your mistakes.”

These words are the foundation on which Carlen builds the framework for his classes. Whether the students are returning with a black belt or working toward a green belt, they have all adopted their instructors calm mindset.

Mea Lane, a student of Carlen’s, has been training with him for ten years. Under his instruction Lan has received a first and second degree black belt.

“He has infinite patience and the ability to reach each student with their learning style. He can find a way to get everybody to understand and to perform at their best.” said Lane.

While self-defense can be seen as the superficial reason to learning a martial art, Carlen’s classes have a clinical benefit.

Bob Lofrano has been the athletic director for Pierce College since 1990. An avid sportsman himself, Lofrano stresses the importance of staying active.

“Get outside and move around. Take a swim class, take a weight training class. It’s very important to move your body,” Lofrano said. “Just to get out of the classroom.”

Carlen continues to teach in a positive manner, whether it be at Pierce College or in the dojo. His hope is to inspire his students the same way former instructors have inspired him.

“You are capable of far more than you think you are,” Carlen said. “Almost everybody is.”