We love a challenge,” says Anita Yiannoullou, co-founder of Sanjuro. “When we go into primary schools we’re often given the ‘hard to engage’ kids to work with. London councils and fund partners ask us to put on classes for young people, adults, over 65s and dementia sufferers in deprived areas, where social issues mean people rarely go out.”
A martial arts system with roots in karate and influenced by dance, Sanjuro was developed by Glenn Delikan in response to a need to keep himself, and those around him, safe in the violent estate where he grew up.
“I learned karate and kickboxing for self defence, but I also liked the movement aspect of dance. I found that when I brought dancing into my sparring no one could touch me, but I could get them!” he laughs.
Yiannoullou and Delikan co-founded Sanjuro in 2004, with the intention of empowering individuals by making martial arts accessible and inclusive to all.
The organisation works with a variety of people and organisations. A typical day might include a women-only DanceCombat class, a self defence workshop for teens and pad-work for strength and flexibility for refugees.
Some classes attract people with physical and learning difficulties, but the layered instruction allows them to participate. One boy with cerebral palsy was encouraged to visualise himself doing the movements and – combined with focused pad work – this led to improvements in his movement. He now leads aspects of classes from his wheelchair.
“Sanjuro is not so much about what you can do, but what you try to do,” says Delikan. “Everyone has invisible and visible issues which hold them back. You might find an athletic person finds it harder than someone without limbs, because they lack the confidence to try. Through the training, we aim to give people a better understanding of who they are and encourage them to realise their own potential.”
Sanjuro has just won the London Sports Club of the Year award for its work in getting Londoners physically active. It’s their work with people who thought martial arts were inaccessible – because of a disability, lack of money, confidence, or a language barrier – which bring the most reward and joy to Yiannoullou and Delikan as instructors.
“The joy and positive impact we see drives us to develop partnerships to make things happen,” says Yiannoullou, who looks after the business side.
Sanjuro has partnerships with StreetGames, London Sport, Jackie Chan’s Dragon Heart’s Europe, Action for Blind People and the Deaf Children’s Society, as well as councils, schools, community groups, leisure centres and CSR programmes to pull together funding to support its work.
So, how does Sanjuro manage to engage people, where others have failed? “Martial arts encompass ancient knowledge and the reason they’ve stayed around is because they work,” says Delikan. “The teaching has an intrinsic truth and value. If you love it and are passionate about it, people hook on to that.
“You have to find a common language and help people work out what’s best for them. Start small: in the beginning it might just be listening to music and moving. It’s important to treat people how you want to be treated. We keep classes enjoyable and relaxed.”
With six instructors and an army of volunteers, Sanjuro currently reaches 300 people a week, but they have ambitions to grow and want more instructors to increase classes in London and, in time, nationwide.
To this end, Delikan has created a Level 2 AQA Inclusion Coach programme for instructors and carers, which teaches how to make group exercise inclusive.
They’re also seeking funding for a technology-driven physical activity programme for children, to help encourage good habits early and combat obesity and disease associated with a lack of activity.