Interview with: Master Harry Pfister

Martial arts have been practiced for ages, but today they may be more popular than ever. Master Harry Pfister, an eight-degree black belt and owner of Villari’s Self-Defense in Chalfont, Pennsylvania, discusses the various ways they can improve one’s health and life.

A timely trend

“Any time there’s a fitness fad, it catches on. When Rocky came out, people flocked to gyms to box. People couldn’t wait to try the ThighMaster. In the seventies, Bruce Lee popularized martial arts. But in the early nineties, the UFC began showcasing athletes using martial arts rather than someone fighting ninjas in a movie. It showed that MMA fighters are highly skilled and very good at what they do, and much of it is defense. That sport eventually brought martial arts into the mainstream.

“Plus, social media makes us more aware of dangers all around us nowadays. As a result, people may not feel safe walking down the street, want their kid going away to college, or feel comfortable with their child playing in the park at a distance. They wonder, How can we defend ourselves? That’s why the self-defense aspect of martial arts is appealing.”

Physical benefits


“The physical workout is pretty impressive. I’ve seen a lot of other athletes, such as marathon runners, become physically drained after a class. The main physical benefit of martial arts is that its various techniques use different muscles. On Monday you might practice hand strikes, which work the triceps, chest muscles, and back muscles, and then on Thursday practice control, which works your biceps, back, shoulder muscles, and hips. Martial arts also make you more efficient and effective with your movements; even just being in a proper stance works outer-leg muscles and improves body control and posture, which makes you stronger. It’s a complete workout.”


“To use myself as an example, I always had terrible stamina when it came to nonstop activities like running. I tried my wife’s aerobics class and felt like I was going to pass out twenty minutes in. But I find that, from doing martial arts, my endurance is more efficient now. I’m fifty-two years old, and I can play baseball or soccer with my younger neighbors. After four or five hours of teaching martial arts classes, my Fitbit shows that I’ve taken 10,000 steps and walked seven or eight miles. So my stamina is far better than someone’s who sits at a desk all week.”

Everyday living

“Martial arts teach techniques for better balance and coordination, which will benefit every aspect of your life. Even if you’re sitting on the couch doing nothing, you may be in a better posture position or find time to stretch or move throughout the day. That could be enough to get your body back in a natural, comfortable state rather than sitting hunched over all the time.”

Mental benefits

“The mental aspect is my favorite part of martial arts. At my studio, we emphasize respect, self-control, and self-discipline in our classes. Students bowing to their partners or thanking their parents shows respect. Standing still during practice exhibits self-control. And doing their homework without having to be reminded shows self-discipline. But even more, I love instilling confidence in students. Self-confidence can help them stand up to a bully and advocate for themselves, which can go far in life. All these mental benefits far outweigh any punch or kick that a student could learn—they can become a better human being and have a better life.

“A great example of this is one of my adult students. One day, she shared with me that she had been assaulted in college, which she had relived in her dreams for decades. After learning self-defense, one night she fought back in her dream. It was cathartic for her, and she told me she wished she had learned defense thirty years earlier.”

Age-related benefits

“In teaching martial arts, we take what you can already do well physically and make it more effective, regardless of age. That said, some styles favor younger people. Taekwondo does because it’s a very kicking-based art. But if you maintain your flexibility and strength, you can kick well into your seventies or eighties with no problem. Jujitsu, which is like wrestling, favors younger people as well, whereas middle-ground martial arts like kung fu are probably better for most people as they get older.

“Overall, though, martial arts can be a lifelong activity. Around 75 percent of my adult students are over forty, and some have been with me for over twenty-five years. I’ve had a student get his fifth-degree black belt when he was seventy-five. Another of my students is a seventy-two-year-old woman who weighs about eighty-five pounds. She enjoys every class, no matter what happens, even if she’s working with bigger, stronger, younger guys. She’ll tell them, ‘I can take you down.’ In her mind, she absolutely could.”

Social benefits


“People make friends all the time because of their common interest in martial arts or because they just start talking to each other before or after class. This is especially true for young kids, who sometimes have a hard time meeting new people; so many come into the class and become best friends after talking for twenty minutes. I’ve had teens who have gone through bullying at school or have lost all their friends, and they were able to make new friends here because martial arts gave them the confidence to advocate for themselves. I’ve also bonded with many people through teaching martial arts; my students become like family members. I’ve even had three ask me to officiate their weddings.”


“There’s a bonding element of working with others for the common goal of making everybody better. A martial arts class is a team, and students cheer for one another to succeed, regardless of how skilled they are. A child who’s uncertain of himself will walk out of class feeling like a rock star because of the support they got.”

Breaking boards—and boundaries

“Martial arts encourage mutual respect, which helps to break boundaries. A fellow student won’t care who you are, where you come from, or what you or your parents do for a living; they’re going to show you respect. I recently had two girls on our demonstration team who had never met each other before karate, were in different social circles, and went to different schools, so they never would have interacted outside of class. They’re now best friends.

“I also remember one particular set of adults who bonded here. Even though they aren’t in class together anymore and several have moved away, they’re all still best friends for life because they went through the ranks together over years of training—their shared experience and friendship have stayed strong over time and even through many miles of separation. That’s such a cool thing to me. It’s because of experiences like this that I love martial arts.”

For more info, visit