Portrait of an artist

Instructor Violet Zaki demonstrates the focused intensity and quiet beauty of combat.

After one unforgettable night ten years ago, New York City-based group fitness instructor Violet Zaki started studying martial arts and never looked back. She trained in a traditional dojo (where she continues to study), then set out to combine her two passions, fitness and self-defense, so she created Zen Combat, a class that's both authentic to her art form and dynamic enough for the Equinox classroom. The result? Her faithful students build bodies that not only look killer, but could also do some serious damage if ever challenged in a dark alley — or subway station. This is her story:

How did you get into martial arts?
Ten years ago when I had just come to this country I was moving my things from one apartment to another late at night, and I was waiting for the subway at the Canal Street station when I was attacked. The guy ended up just taking my stuff, but it changed something in me. There was this fear that was never there before. I signed up for a martial arts program the day after. I wasn’t going to let this take over my life. Looking back, I feel like there’s an element of strength that that person gave me.

How exactly did that experience change you?
My dojo became my community. I learned so much, and I wanted to pass that on to my students, so I decided I needed to bridge the gap between traditional martial arts practice and group fitness — especially for women. There’s a sense of empowerment that comes with martial arts — and beauty. It’s this really cool mix of strength, softness, grace and, you know, kick-ass.

What’s the difference between what happens in your classroom, and what you get in a standard cardio kickboxing class?
I think when it comes from an authentic place, there is a sense of credibility that the instructor has. I take a lot of pride in how I integrate the two worlds without losing the integrity of what I’ve been taught. So, ultimately the student who takes my class, which is a sequence of martial arts-inspired moves set to music, they know that there’s a reason for everything that is being done during that class. You can’t bring style into martial arts because it’s so traditional and so authentic, and I have such great respect for my teachers. It’s like the relationship we all have for our parents. We respect them, and we’re a reflection of them. I hope that I’m a reflection of all my teachers and that my students are a reflection of me.

And how about the body benefits?
Well, first, you’re moving the entire body at once, not isolating muscle groups, which is the most effective way to train. Then there’s the whole mind-body connection. You must be focused on the movements, and that is going to make every kick, punch, and motion for that matter, more powerful, so muscles are firing intensely and precisely.

So there’s a big element of control involved?
Yes. A kata, which is just a sequence of movements like I perform in the video, is not just ‘bang, smash, crush.’ There’s a certain element of emotional control that you need in order to be strategic in the way you move. It’s knowing when to go full-blast and when to pull back.

And your students can ultimately get to that place?
In my classes, when I build the sequence of moves into a kata there is no room to daydream. If your mind and body aren’t connected and you start thinking about your dinner plans, or the report you left on your desk or the boyfriend that’s upsetting you, you’ll lose your spot. If my students aren’t focused, I can tell. It takes time, but there’s a level of awareness my students get. It suddenly clicks, and I see it. That’s the moment they grow, and that’s what it’s about.

Watch Zaki's ultimate kata in the video above.

And for more mindful workouts, try:
The Truth Behind the Ballet Body
Animal Flow

Video by Project Dstllry