Martial arts in Lithuania: An in-depth interview with Martynas Karys

Martynas Karys

Martynas has won multiple local tournaments in New York and is featured at the website for US Open Martial Arts Championship (

When and how did interest in the martial arts arise in Lithuania?

It wasn’t until we won our independence from the USSR that various branches of martial arts started to appear in Lithuania. Masters from Korea, Japan, Thailand, and other countries started to hold seminars all around the “New Europe”. This gave Lithuanians a unique opportunity to learn and start spreading martial art styles. Our liberation from Soviet Union gave us the freedom to pursue our passion. For some it was martial arts.

What are the major types of martial arts practiced by Lithuanians?

The most popular style is probably Muay Thai, popularly known as Kickboxing. It picked up speed in the late 90’s and has been growing ever since. You can also find various branches of Karate such as Kyokushin, Shidokan, and Kudo. What is most exciting is that we have Taekwondo schools emerging too. Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that emphasizes jumping and spinning kicks. Also, we even have our own national team that is recognized by the World Taekwondo Federation!

What are some of the major accomplishments of Lithuanians active in the martial arts? Who are the most accomplished Lithuanian martial arts experts?

One of the best-known fighters – domestically and abroad – is Remigijus Morkevicius, the Muay Thai/Kickboxing national champion. He competed in “K-1”, “ZST” and “Hero’s,” which are Japanese fighting leagues. Remigijus Morkevicius is best known for his brutal knee strikes, which resulted in several wins by KO. For the past several years he was out of the picture, but I know he is coming back. On September 13th of this year, he competed in a local tournament in Visaginas, Lithuania.

Egidijus Valavičius is another well-known Lithuanian MMA/Kickboxing fighter. He traveled all around Europe and Asia and did quite well in his fights. He also recently started fighting in Chicago, USA. Like Morkevicius, he is known for his brutal KO’s, using his knees and punches.
We also saw some success with Taekwondo. In 2005 Julija Šalkauskaitė, who was the first Lithuanian taekwondo athlete, won bronze at the European Youth Championships. She was also a candidate for 2012 Olympic Games.

What are the formal martial arts communities and/or organizations among Lithuanian martial arts practitioners?

We have quite a few organizations running the show in Lithuania.  We have Lietuvos Taekwondo Federacija (Lithuania Taekwondo Federation), which is recognized by the World Taekwondo Federation. We have Lietuvos Muay Thai Sąjunga (Lithuania Muay Thai Association). Also, a well known Lietuvos Bushido Federacija (Lithuania Bushido Federation). These are among several major organizations that promote martial arts development in Lithuania.

What is the current status of various martial arts styles in Lithuania?

Most of them are still under development.  And that’s quite alright.  Martial arts are always changing, so we need to think of them as in a state of constant development.  That makes sense since human beings are always changing too. 

My hope is that Lithuanians will start getting involved with more of a spiritual part of the martial arts, not just physical. 

We started with Muay Thai and MMA (mixed martial arts), but I have also seen schools of Aikido established.  That makes me very happy, because Aikido is a style that has deep spiritual roots.

I have also noticed some underground schools of Wing Chun slowly gaining ground. Wing Chun is a Chinese martial arts style that was popularized by Bruce Lee. I am very hopeful for the future of martial arts in Lithuania.

What are the major issues facing martial arts in Lithuania?

Definitely a lack of recognition! I can bet that a lot of Lithuanians and foreigners could tell you about our accomplishments as athletes, but mainly in fields such as swimming, tennis and, of course , basketball. If you ask them about our martial artists, chances are you will get a blank look. We need to develop more exposure for our martial arts communities and athletes, but for this to happen we will need help.

What can the Lithuanian government do to help the development of martial arts?

We definitely need support from our government. We are getting plenty of it when it comes to basketball, but virtually none when it comes to martial arts. Some sort of tax credit would go a long way in helping out various martial arts establishments around the country. Hopefully, as the current organizations representing different styles gain momentum, we will see an increase in exposure and recognition. Since we do not have a large population, it would be great if we could consolidate the various organizations into one that supports all athletes throughout the styles.

How and why did you first get interested in the martial arts?

It was back when I was 14-ish. At that time, I desperately needed a direction or a focus in my life. Like many teenagers in a small Lithuanian town, I experienced many hardships. The fact that my mother, the only parent I had since I was 5 years old, was abroad did not help my situation. 

This was when my friend, Dovydas Egorovas, talked me into attending Shidokan Karate classes run by a local gym teacher and a martial artist – Egidijus Visockas. The instant I saw him teach, I knew “THIS IS IT.” It grabbed me immediately and never let go. The fluidness and power that came with martial arts moves mesmerized me.

This experience gave me focus. I had a goal, a path, and a purpose. Before, I felt like I had been standing at the top of a mountain wondering in which direction to go.  Martial arts gave me a direction. The momentum picked up on its own. Just like running down the mountain.  Once you acquire a certain momentum, you just can’t stop. I’ve been that way ever since.

Who were the important people who inspired you?

My first role model was my instructor. But soon I was introduced , once again by Dovydas Egorovas, to a martial artist whose fame and influence has echoed around the globe. 

His name was Bruce Lee. I remember seeing one of his movies. I think it was The Big Boss.  It flipped my world upside down.  Every expectation, fantasy, and limit that I had about martial arts shattered immediately. The speed, accuracy and fluidness of this little Asian man were remarkable. 

He immediately became my role model and has been ever since. I analyzed every movie he appeared in, and every book and word he has written.  His example inspired me to become who I am today and who I am still becoming. More accurately – he allowed me to realize my potential and to learn how to express myself honestly.

What type(s) of martial arts do you practice?

Throughout my journey I practiced many styles. I started with Shidokan Karate in Lithuania. When I first came to the USA, I continued my journey by studying Chinese Kung Fu under Master Longfei Yang. I then did some Shaolin Kung Fu under Shi Yan Ming. 

At that point my understanding of martial arts was still very limited. I was looking for something else – something more physical so to speak. So I got myself into Taekwondo. I competed in close to 15 tournaments until I grew out of it, so to speak. I then did some Hapkido (Korean grappling) and started to become more versatile. 

Lastly, I practiced Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee’s “self-expression and philosophy-infused” art. Now I just practice everything I have learned on my own. I keep contact with my masters (Taekwondo and Kung Fu), and I will be visiting them soon on my trip back to New York.

If possible, could you briefly tell us what you meant by the spiritual side of the martial arts as well as describe its essential features?

I like what Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, said: “To injure an opponent is to injure yourself. To control aggression without inflicting injury is the Art of Peace.” 

He was a wonderful human being whose martial arts skills flew miles past mere physical prowess into deep spiritual understanding.  

There are three major principles of the spiritual side of martial arts that I came to embrace:

First, stay balanced. Most of us have emotionally draining lives. Our level of stress may vary, but nonetheless we do encounter many stressors in our daily lives. A martial artist learns to deal with these stressors. The spiritual side of martial arts teaches us to keep balanced under any conditions. Let me give you an example.

During a trip back to Lithuania in 2009, my friend Dovydas Egorovas, also a martial artist, and I saw a car with four young men menacingly circling us as we walked down the street of a small city at night.  One of them hurled insults at us.  

Later we saw that the car had stopped.  I noticed that one of the men held what looked like a concealable baton in his hand. 

Dovydas and I knew trouble is coming. I immediately made sure that they were watching and threw a couple of back spinning kicks in the air, still not saying a word to them. Dovydas and I then found a strategic spot with a wall behind us and faced the car. 

After a couple of minutes of what sounded like chatter coming from inside the car, they drove away.

Consider the passengers as the stressors, and me and Dovydas as two martial artists who kept our balance intact and did not allow themselves to get emotional or confrontational.

Another important principle that I would like to discuss is that a martial artist strives to remain objective and rational no matter what. My Taekwondo/Hapkido master, Tony Byon once asked me, “What would you do if you are being robbed. Say someone came up to you with a knife and told you to give them all of your money.” 

Back then I thought that I would fight them. He then remarked, “What if you had your wife and a child with you?”

“I don’t know” I said. 

He continued, “The best thing to do is to give them your money. You can always make more money. Risking the lives of your family, even if you think you could easily handle the assailant, is foolish.” 

He taught me to weigh the pros and cons before making any decision.  I learned not react to a situation emotionally and to try and stay balanced.  I learned to engage my reason before responding with action.

Are there any more principles pertaining to the spiritual side of the martial arts that influenced your life?

Yes, use the minimum amount of force required, and only when absolutely necessary.

Injuring others even if it’s in self defense should not be the goal of a martial artist. 

Here’s another example from that same visit to Lithuania. As my friend Ugnius Aidas , also a skilled martial artist, and I were trying to catch a trolley bus, we saw two young guys. Each one was holding a liter of beer. They were leaving a trolley bus after they had unhooked the antennas that powered it.

Then we saw the bus driver get out and go after them.

“If he gets into trouble, we have to help him,” I said, Ugnius nodded.

As soon as the driver caught up to the two, one of them grabbed him and held his hands behind him.  I dropped the bags I was carrying and ran towards the guy who was punching the driver.

When I got within striking distance, I executed a flying push kick at his chest that threw him backwards making him roll back twice.  Seeing this, the other guy let go of the driver.  By then Ugnius had caught up with me.

The guy on the ground sat up, looked at his friend, looked at me, and then yelled from the bottom of his lungs, “SHIT, LET’S RUN!”  I never saw anyone run that fast.

Ugnius and I walked back to the bus where the driver was politely waiting for us.  We got a round of applause from the passengers as we entered.  

Clearly, reasoning was out of the question with these guys. The only course of action was to intervene with force since they already started beating the driver. The lesson here is that I used only one kick, and I even aimed it at the chest. I could have aimed it at his head, neck, or any other vital area that would have caused much greater injury, but causing injury should never be your goal as a martial artist. 

As a martial artist who understands the spiritual side of martial arts, I knew that my enemy was not the assailants. My enemy was the animosity that they felt towards the driver. Once I replaced that animosity with fear, I no longer had an enemy in front of me.

It is hard to put clear boundaries between the physical, mental, and spiritual parts of martial arts. They are all interconnected. To summarize, the spiritual side of martial arts includes the ability to stay balanced, rational, and to use only what is necessary during times of great stress, misfortune, or physical altercation.

What advice would you give to anyone interested in learning a martial art?

I have met and seen a multitude of martial artists looking for a “perfect” martial art. There is no such thing. Find the style you like, one that resonates with who you are. Find out everything about it. Don’t forget the history and the philosophy behind the style. The style you practice should lead to self-expression, which inevitably will make you styleless. If you trust your heart, eventually it will lead to a cessation of style which is true self-expression. This is because you cannot express yourself through someone else, and since styles were initially created by others, the style itself will disappear once you develop honest self-expression.

Can older adults or those who are in poor physical shape benefit from martial arts training? If so, what would you suggest they do?

One of my good friends, Scott Hamlin from New York, practiced martial arts when he was young. He then stopped. About five years ago he got back into it. He is 51 years old now, and can execute techniques with great strength flexibility and fluidity. He does not have a set daily regimen, he trains intuitively. He gets up and listens to his body. He may start his day with meditation and breathing exercises followed by weight lifting, and maybe some forms and drills with focus mitts.

Another day, if his body is feeling inflexible, he will devote that day to doing yoga and stretching exercises so that the following day he could do some good kicking drills. That does not mean that he trains sporadically. In fact, he is very consistent – training every day.
The biggest mistake martial artists make is they push themselves over the limit. As Tony Byon used to say, “Push your limits, but do not go over them”. Going beyond your limits will cause injury, and that will only delay your progress. Keeping that in mind you can do martial arts at any age at all. I don’t care if you are 90. It is never too late to start. 

At an older age, you may want to start with something simpler and more internal like Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a Chinese form of what used to be a martial art that uses slow motions and internal energy to cultivate balance, flexibility and endurance.

What is your typical daily practice routine?

I focus on some basic points like stretching/abs and my most used techniques, but I don’t have a training routine that I follow every day. Just like Scott Hamlin, I try to listen to my body and act accordingly. If my legs are done from training I did yesterday, then it would be foolish to continue onto the same routine. 

I think the best routine is one that has core essentials , something short and to the point. After which you can add and modify whatever training you feel up to. 

 Also, try to focus on one major aspect per day. For example, I may focus on my side kick today and maybe certain combination punches tomorrow. This is because as a martial artist you can have such a huge array of different techniques that practicing all of them every day is simply impossible. 

Listening to your body is not the same as listening to your mind. You may feel a certain level of fatigue quite often, but that does not mean you should avoid training that day. I would adjust my routine according to the status of my body/mind. 

On my rest days I may have to just focus on meditation and stretching techniques. That is just as necessary and vital as knowing the techniques themselves.

What benefits have you obtained from learning martial arts?

Most important of all is the focus that I gained in my life. Martial arts also gave me a better understanding of who I am as a human being and my part in this world. Through understanding myself I was able to understand others and through understanding others, I came to know human nature. It really is a journey of a lifetime, I am learning more and more every day. It is a never ending journey, one that I will continue for the rest of my life. So, as a great man said, “Walk on, my friends.”

Dr. Boris Vytautas Bakunas is an educational psychologist who teaches graduate professional development courses through the International Renewal Institute. His research and articles have appeared in Applied Psycholinguistics, Clearinghouse, Learning, Principal, Education Digest, Vilnews, and the Lithuania Tribune. Dr. Bakunas is a full member of the American Psychological Association.

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