Malia Bernal is a legend in the world of martial arts.
A prominent figure that dominated the US tournament circuit in the late 60’s and early 70’s, she was the preeminent woman fighter in both combat and in kata (forms) for five years running.
Formerly married to Wun Hop Kuen Do founder Master Al Dacascos, they entered various mixed martial arts tournaments together throughout the US and Hawaii proving to be a formidable kung fu force consistently winning trophy after trophy.
From this illustrious tree has sprouted the finest athletes; champions in their own right for, as well as being the mother and teacher to martial arts superstar Mark Dacascos, she’s also trained and coached a number of other distinguished martial arts warriors such as Emanuel Bettencourt, Karen Sheperd, Christian Wulf, who revere her for her solid, unrelenting, iron-willed-hard-work ethic and boundless energy that simply loves to get the job done!
She’s been in the fitness industry for decades now having worked with many of the greats including Chuck Norris and is friends with the likes of Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, Linda Lee and many more.
A few of her other achievements include being the first woman to be featured on the front cover of Black Belt Magazine in 1974, a multiple recipient of the Golden Fist Award (all the more impressive considering it was a male dominated sport back then) as well as Best All-Around Competitor.
Now Malia takes time out to speak with us about her colourful life and experiences, from her background, competitions, early years learning under Master Al, reminisces about training the young Mark, to her fitness career, the attributes of a winning mindset, her upcoming book “White Belt Master” and much more!
We found her optimism contagious and we hope we’ve managed to capture at least a little of that essence -which continues to inspire a powerful legacy in all those whose lives she’s touched- in this interview. Now here’s Malia.
Hi Malia we’re so pleased and honored to have you with us!
Well thank you Raj, nice to be here!
What do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom?
I like it! It’s catchy and when I saw it I immediately thought of England. Kung Fu Kingdom is very good and I am honoured to be interviewed.
Great thanks Malia! Okay, Let’s take it from the top, when and where were you born?
I was born on 5th October and I’m about 25 years young 😉 I was born and raised a California girl in the mountains on a ranch as a cowgirl, so I was a tomboy.
Nice environment to be in! May we know your height and weight?
I’m 5’5″ (1.65m) tall and weigh 119 lbs (54kg).
Can you tell us a bit about your background, how did you first get into the martial arts and when?
I got into the martial arts in my early 20’s and it was actually a birthday gift certificate.
You see, coming from a very large family of brothers and sisters I was the young one and we always used to play fight.
My family noticed that I was a natural born fighter I just never had any techniques taught to me. So, I received this certificate that enabled me to go looking for a school I liked. So, I researched (as I do with everything) before I signed up. I must have gone to maybe 15 different schools of different styles and just watched all the classes. Primarily I was interested in watching the advanced classes because I wanted to know what it would look like when I finally received the black belt whether in Taekwondo, or the Japanese styles and so on. (Those two for example, were not for my body type, so I didn’t go for them.)
I was about to tell my family that it wasn’t working out when I saw this Asian-oriental looking school. I went in and looked around. At first I thought it was a Chinese restaurant, and then discovered it was a Kung Fu school! I watched the classes and saw the end results of it; it was beautiful, there was an art hidden within the beauty of the movements, even the techniques applied with such fluidity were beautiful. It was right for me, my body liked it, I realised I could do this and that’s how I started out, in Kung Fu.
You continued to develop in your art for years in the company of well known contemporaries, who were they?
I guess they were the guys who used to tease me all the time! People like Chuck Norris, Joe Lewis (RIP), Rick Alemany, Steve Armstrong, Fred Wren, Donny Williams, Howard Jackson all the known fighters.
The legends, I guess you knew them well!
We were on the same tournament circuit, so yes I knew them very well, they were all my friends.
Great to know. Do you still keep in touch with guys like Chuck Norris?
On occasion. I was his wife’s trainer for years, they lived on an island and Chuck hired me to teach her so I moved to the island. I actually did a movie with Chuck. I know he’s really busy these days with what he’s doing right now, but when our names are mentioned we both have high respect for each other, a fond remembrance of the beautiful friendship that we’ve had for years.
Wonderful! So, who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts, was it Sifu Al Dacascos to whom you were married or other masters?
I guess the only ones that inspired me at the time were the guys who dominated all the styles out there and were actually doing it at the time, they inspired me and Sifu Al always believed in me.
You have to realise that back then, when I first started out there weren’t many women I could look up to – it was just the beginning for women in the martial arts. However I thought to myself ‘women can do this too, not just men!’ I was always a little sassy there.
In terms of women, there were fighters like Marion Bermudez from Arizona, Mahi Morales from Northern California, and Nancy Miller as well as the Castro sister, June, April and May and Lily Urquidez doing the art, and I used to think, ‘I want to be just as good as they are!’
On Sifu Al, I will always say he is probably the best martial artist I have ever met. There is nobody that can move like him, create technique, combine speed and insight on how techniques should be used and how to apply it in such a way -that a lot of instructors are not capable of doing. It comes natural for him, he’s just a natural born fighter. To this very day I still think that, and I often tell him I’m very disappointed that he didn’t go further, not just keeping on doing little and large seminars and travelling. Sifu Al is the one that should have been out there in the movie world choreographing fight scenes, doing movies because he was so fabulous, and I still think that today. In fact, our son Mark Dacascos just had his first movie director debut with “Showdown in Manila” and Sifu Al was the fight choreographer for it! It comes out next year, 2016.
How about for example Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez, was he another who influenced you favourably?
He’s a favourite for sure, and Bruce Lee’s movies also inspired me, I used to get a kick out of them!
Did you meet much with Bruce Lee?
I met Bruce Lee although we weren’t close friends or anything, but I was close friends with his wife Linda. My sons, Mark and Craig, used to play with Brandon and Shannon Lee, they were friends too. I would stay with Linda after Bruce passed away, and we would entertain each other practicing forms…our friendship kept up. Then I started doing a lot of travelling here and there, like a little gypsy!
So what was it like training under Sifu Al, can you relate your experiences?
Studying with Al Dacascos was confusing. Recently I was asked to describe Al Dacascos including what I felt and learned with him. I said I was in a state of confusion and I told him this the other day actually that that’s a compliment. I was lost in his style because he was pretty overwhelming. I was one woman in a school that was totally made up of men and because of that, they didn’t want me in there in the first place. They were trying to beat me up, half kill me so I would quit but I didn’t quit, I said, ‘No I’m not quitting, I’m not going anywhere!’
I remember I would go to Al and I would say, ‘Al I’m lost here I don’t understand this’, or whatever point it was about, and he’d look at me and put his hands on his hips and say, ‘Malia, I’ve taught you to kick, I’ve taught you to punch, I’ve taught you to jump, sweep, and more. I’ve taught you everything you can learn up to this point, figure it out, put it together!’ He’d say, ‘Haven’t you figured it out by now that I am not pre-arranged art, I am free flowing? I’ve taught you everything, put it together!’ At the time it was frustrating because I would think, ‘You’re the teacher and you’re telling me to put it together?!’
It was only as the years went by that I realised how grateful I was for the way he taught me, I actually told him this the other day. Sifu Al wanted us to take what he taught us, adapt it for our bodies and way of thinking in order to make it more powerful and more ours. He has never been regimented in cookie cutter movements. He always taught to go with the flow of the situation. For me it was always about doing versus talking about it. I know this approach has been a great help to teaching anything as when somebody asked me to teach, they might’ve asked about my preparation and I’d say, ‘Well, why I should prepare, I’m prepared!’ That’s what I took from my learning from Al, to be prepared no matter what it is you have to do. That was really good, that has helped me throughout my whole life, keeping in the flow, doing the punch, kick, ad lib whatever you need to do at the moment, go up, do a technique and make it work. Just go and just do it -that’s the best feeling in the world to not have to prepare.
That’s very Bruce Lee-esque! So for the record and for the benefit of our readers what rank or dan have you attained to date?
Well in Wun Hop Kuen Do and in Kajukenbo I hold an 8th degree black belt. My system of Kung Fu (Xiang Dai Kung Fu) is one I’m still putting together, still creating as we go along… as for rank, although I am the creator and instructor, I am forever always the student too.
So you originated your own style, Xiang Dai Kung Fu, what does that translate as?
It translates as “flow”. It’s my personality because as I mentioned, what I found and learned in Wun Hop Kuen Do was freedom, flowing, never being stopped by anything. Even if you don’t know the answer you go forward and try to figure it out and so that’s what I’d like my style of Kung Fu to be about, the freedom of flowing strength.
Sounds ideal! Can you tell us more about this system?
It’s a contemporary style, it’s nothing traditional which holds true to my free flowing nature. I’m not a traditional woman, I’m a contemporary woman although I have utmost respect for traditional styles. Time moves forward, everything evolves and moves forward, that’s why my Xiang Dai Kung Fu combines a lot of exercise, self-defense and fitness. I used to do powerful Kung Fu forms that were mixed with Southern stances (deep low stances), and Northern (leaps and powerful kicks), the power of the punches and the focus of the mind.
I have found, in exercise, you’re using your brain, your body and your experience in fact, you use your whole being. Some days you simply just get out there, sometimes you close your mind off and just do what you have to do, especially if you’re running, punching a bag or lifting weights. Mentally, you don’t have to always be thinking but you must know your routine to perform it. I’ve always thought Kung Fu and Kung Fu forms to be the ultimate exercise because it utilizes your mind AND body, both of which have the ability to memorize, with training for both in order to project and perform forms. Since some people have trouble with memorization, I also develop forms that use both the left and right sides of the brain because I found if you teach somebody to do a technique on their right side and then you ask them to execute it using their left side, they struggle. By using this technique, it enables the student to not only learn well but to have fun too!
Does this core rationale come from a centre of confidence that with all your accumulated skill; you can just spontaneously improvise as needs arise?
Well yes, speaking of confidence I had to have a lot of confidence when I was a yellow belt. When I started doing tournaments, I realised there was an opportunity there to make a real big name for women and I recognized there were a lot of martial arts magazines out there all for men, not women. So I clearly remembered telling my students and fellow classmates in the school that, ‘One day you’re going to see, I’m going to be the first woman on the cover of that “Black Belt” magazine!’ It was cool because it did happen, that was such an honour.
Interesting, is your son Mark Dacascos an 8th Dan in Wun Hop Kuen Do as well?
I believe he is but Mark couldn’t care less about rank, it isn’t his thing. He trains for the joy of it not for a belt. I don’t care about it either I don’t know if you know that many years back Al demoted me to white belt due to a personal conflict. Not sure if your audience knows, but I have been writing a book called “White Belt Master” based on my life and times within Wun Hop Kuen Do and Kajukenbo. For 23 years I was out of the art, staying mostly within my own little circle of friends I was working with which is another reason I got so heavily into fitness because I was not in involved heavily within martial arts any more.
When I was demoted to white belt. I was already involved with my own style and my own students. Just one of the things Mark and I always laugh about because Mark doesn’t care about rank! The thing is, If you walk into the classroom and you can’t tell the teacher from the students, there’s a problem there which is the basic reasoning behind rank belts. After I was demoted, other organisations wanted to bring me in under their styles and rank me and although I was appreciative, I respectfully declined.
Due to my Kajukenbo roots, I accepted Sijo Emperado’s blanket of Karate. We met when I was a white belt under Al Dacascos. Even back then, he recognised my spirit and commented that one day I would be a great contributor to Kajukenbo. It was the last official system he backed and signed off on before his death.
So, you’re writing a memoir called “White Belt Master”, how is that going?
When I started writing “White Belt Master” I really was a white belt, but in the meantime, my two boys and people were so annoyed at Al that a few years back he gave me back my black belt, so I’m now a black belt again. I’m still going to write what it was like to be a white belt master, I have made that journey more than once, but what I was writing has kind of taken a turn to the left because now I see things differently. So, it’ll come out at some point for sure, it’s too great of a book not to, who knows, I might even turn it into a movie.
That would be incredible, looking forward to it! So, when you were competing and you were doing forms, do you remember roughly how old you were and the kind of competitions you had back then?
I was in my early 20’s and it wasn’t easy. It was rough and tough whereas today everybody is padded up with gloves, head gear, chest protector all the way down to the feet. In contrast, we didn’t have anything, we fought with bare hands and feet; my fingers, toes and shins show just how hard I used to fight.
It wasn’t just one match, sometimes we fought all day long.
It was my honour to win the Internationals five years in a row including Kata and fighting for two of those years, the other years were just for form. Probably, the most memorable internationals I won was against Benny Urquidez’s sister Lilly. I was the underdog as the Northern California girl and she was the Southern Los Angeles girl and we finally met up for the finals and were going to pair off just to see who’d win the Internationals.
Lilly’s Southern California crowd and all of her students, Benny and all the brothers, everybody was there. As I walked towards the platform the students said, ‘Ah don’t bother to go up there, better just go and collect your second place trophy now!’ I looked at them, smiled but said nothing, I just went up on the stage, (which was always an elevated one for the Internationals) but the remark was imbedded in my head, I thought ‘Oh my gosh!’ Anyhow the outcome was that I was the winner and when I walked back down I looked at them and I think I told them, ‘I’m going to collect the first place trophy’.
It was a great honour to beat Lilly on her own territory, of course since then Lilly has passed away. She was such a fabulous martial artist and came from such a great background. Women like Lilly, really tried to practice the art; we didn’t go in there to try to kill each other, we went there to demonstrate our skill and technique.
Exciting flashback! thanks for sharing that. You were also the only woman teaching martial arts in Germany many years ago, how did that feel?
Well at the time you just don’t realise that you are the only one, I didn’t realise it! When I moved to Germany they told me ‘Malia this is a man’s world, it’s not like America where it’s a woman’s world’. And I said, ‘What does that mean? Oh good it’s man’s world over here, but that doesn’t change anything about how I think.’
Being over in Germany was fun, exciting, marvellous, it was an adventure, including which some of my students were actually prostitutes, and I didn’t even know it! It was so funny I’d walk down the red light district because my business was smack bang right in the red light district. It was a great school.
Living in Europe, I met the greatest of people and I had great love for the Germans and they were always warm, hospitable and good people -I adore my students, I love them all. I know a lot of people have trouble with gypsies but I never did, I must have taught 100 gypsies and all their kids and we would spend New Year with the gypsies. I just learned if you go to another part of the world to live it’s important to live the way they do, and leave America at home. Since I was living in a foreign land, I wanted to live it to the highest. I wouldn’t mind living in Germany again.
You know, I did just that, travelled and had so much fun, and did great things Christian Wulf, all of us you know, we did great things. Emanuel Bettencourt who you spoke with was one of my first students and he is so wonderful, I love him like a son.
You speak German well I assume?
Yes I do speak German, but my sons Mark and Craig speak it fluently. Of course Mark and Craig hated me when we first moved to Germany because they thought I was going to put them into the international school where they could speak English, and I didn’t, I put them in a German school. Every day they would come home crying, for six months. Finally they began to learn German. As for me, I didn’t have time to go to school, I was there on a mission, I didn’t go there to learn German but I just wanted to learn to be able to communicate. So I learned from the street, I learned from my students, I learned enough to be able to get by.
Sounds like a real learning curve! Let’s talk about your involvement in movies, so did you do much in the way of martial arts films, Emanuel mentioned something before?
Yes I did a movie with Chuck Norris called “Sidekick”, maybe 30 years ago! That was really fun because Chuck himself asked me to do that movie, he said, ‘Malia there’s nobody that can do that movie except you, you’re number one and you’re renowned for the most beautiful forms. In the movie you have to be yourself, I want you to be in my movie.’ I told Chuck I hadn’t done forms for ages, that I didn’t practice it any more, and that I was there living the good life on the islands!
You know I had the opportunity to do a lot of movies throughout my martial arts career, I was so honoured but I always turned them down because I was more interested in being a competitor and movies weren’t going to help me become number one and renown enough to teach and develop. I just felt honoured that Linda Lee introduced me to a gentleman at Golden Harvest, since she was trying to inspire me to get started in movies. It was my decision not to go into the movie world, but hopefully that day will come where I do a movie with Al and Mark. In my soul I know that’s going to happen, how, I don’t know! It’s just like I didn’t know how I was going to be on the cover of Black Belt magazine; I just know what I want and when a woman wants something bad enough, she gets it.
So you got a lot of invitations to do stuff but you didn’t do any other movies?
The only invitations I ever accepted were anything to do with television, I did all the talk shows because I wanted to promote the art, promote women and to show and do. To me that was good, I didn’t think in terms of movies any more than Mark thought in terms of movies, he didn’t plan on making movies.
On that topic, was Mark, discovered by a talent agent in the early days?
Yes. I had like a fitness school in San Francisco and was teaching fitness and Kung Fu, I was actually teaching a program called Aerobic Defense. Mark and a bunch of Kung Fu students that I had taught were my instructors, and at lunch time Mark had walked out to get something to eat and somebody approached him and gave him a card and asked if he’d be interested in doing a movie and he came back and showed me this little card, and said, what do you think mom? I said well what have you got to lose, you’re talented, go try it out, see what it’s all about, it’s something new. He asked me to go with him, but sit in the car, he didn’t want them to think he brought his mother with him, it was so funny!
How interesting. Can you give us your views on a couple of his films?
Sure! “Only the Strong” has always been my favourite, another is “American Samurai” because Mark knew nothing about a samurai sword he just had a few lessons and he went ahead and made that movie. His ability to use that sword was just amazing. I also liked “Crying Freeman”, it was good, I should see it again and I loved the tattoos he had there and some of the techniques used. Of course there is where he met his beautiful wife, Julie Condra who was his co star. Actually, there are aspects of all of his movies that I love. In my eyes, Mark beatifies just about anything he does.
Totally agree there. Could you relate some memorable experiences training Mark in the early years?
Well, I’ve never babied Mark, even when he was a young boy I trained him hard. I will never forget, he always wanted a six pack and while we were living in Germany, Al and I had to go to Italy in connection with a weekend tournament and Mark was always doing his crunches, crunches, crunches! he wanted a six pack like his mother had.
So this day, (I hadn’t looked at his stomach for a long time) he came home, and said, ‘Mum, mum, mum, come I want to show you my stomach’, and he took his little shirt off and said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said ‘What am I looking at?’ He started crying. ‘Oh honey you don’t have a six pack yet, maybe it’s a two pack’ and his little tears came down his eyes. Later he said, ‘Oh my God I’ll never forget it, I thought I had a six pack and you told me I needed to go back on the floor!’ With Mark I stretched him till I thought I was going to make two of him, I pushed him until he was over the limit, I made him train along with Emanuel Bettencourt. They used to do their forms with combat boots on so that when they would take their boots off, their legs would be so loose.
In my classes back then in Germany, perhaps because it wasn’t the done thing for women to teach the art to men, I had a hard time getting men students but I trained everybody so SO hard. I mean they were doing thousands of push-ups, thousands of jumping jacks. They were in such amazing shape; Mark and Emanuel, all of them had the most incredible physiques, a strong and enduring bunch of animals. That’s why today these guys in their later years are still capable of doing what they do because I gave them such a solid foundation that they don’t know any other way and I always told them, ‘Don’t say you can’t do it, just that you’ll do it!’
So you gave your students the mindset?
Yeah, you train them hard when they’re young, teach them how to eat healthy and the right way of life, do the best you can; all my students were kind of like my children, I always did my best to guide them and I’m so happy. For example, look at Christian Wulf, Emanuel and all of the German students, I am thrilled to have helped instill a strong discipline and work ethic.
When we spoke with Emanuel he said, (referring to your methods in training), ‘Malia used to kill us!’, can you tell us about that?
I did! I remember Mark was fighting in Italy and we really trained hard but he thought he was going to lose this major event. As his coach I went over to him on the floor whilst he just listens to me say, ‘I’m just telling you, I’d beat the crap out of you if you lose this, now get in there and do your thing. I didn’t train you to be a loser, I trained you to be a winner. You’re not going to tell me that that guy’s better than you, I don’t really want to hear about any doubt.’ That was what I was telling my poor son! You know he needed to hear it and he got up and won the match.
I talk to all my students like that only because of the fact that I trained them so hard and I couldn’t possibly understand how they think they’re going to lose? There will be times that you do lose, but this isn’t one of them. I trained those guys hard and I mean hard.
They always used to laugh because I’d sit in the corner on a big stack of mats, and I would be yelling at them what to do while I was eating strawberries, everybody knows I constantly eat! Even while teaching today I eat whenever I feel like eating, anyone who knows me will know that if I’m not talking, I’m eating! You probably can’t imagine me being so skinny when all I do is eat, but I use up a lot of energy as my days are really long, teaching long, hard classes.
I’m not a conventional type of trainer, the only conventional thing about me is that I’m always trying hard to improve. I think I’m a good teacher and I develop fabulous students, I achieve what it is I’m setting out to do in whatever way I can do it.
Excellent! That hardcore, old-school mode is the surefire way to get results! Now, can you tell us some of the secrets of longevity in the martial arts because you’re…
I’m old enough to be your mother! (Her words. Both laugh)
Well, I live a clean, happy life, I eat healthily and train regularly though my body is one walking injury! I’ve had so many injuries, but I’ve learned to deal with everything that goes wrong in life as just another part of life that I’ll overcome. I don’t let anybody in my life that causes stress, if they cause stress I get rid of them. I get up every day and I’m faithful to a 5am workout. I do miles, I do weights, I’ve done water skiing, snow skiing, wind surfing, anything in the outdoors.
Could you tell us the kind of workouts that you do?
My first class starts at 5:30 in the morning and I teach a running class. I’m not the fast runner that I used to be because as you know with time you get a lot of injuries to the knees, back etc. While they run, I jog, but I do mileage, I do trail running, I lift weights, I do lots and lots and lots of ab work because I’ve never wanted a stomach, or to be unfit. If you’re in the world of martial arts and fitness, you’ve got to look like what you preach. I don’t like people who preach to me and they don’t look anything like what they’re preaching. You know, you’d better be able to be what you say you are, if you’re spitting it out, you’d better be that person and walk your talk.
I’m going to start doing bag work with a trainer at the boxing gym. I love getting involved in boxing not because I’m ever going to be a boxer, but because I love the upper body workout that boxers do.
I love to workout, eat, and watch movies. I live a really relaxing, quiet life, I love my friends and students they’re good people, everybody I know is good, I also love a good wine. I am generally a happy person, I’m always this way, from the minute my eyes open in the morning and people hate me because I am this way! I’m just so grateful to be alive and I’m so grateful for all that I’ve been blessed with and everything I have. That’s just the way I think, be happy.
Good policy! You know we’ve talked to a lot of martial artists in California and Los Angeles and so on and yoga classes are very big over there, do you practice yoga, chi-meditation, stuff like that?
I should but I don’t! Because I’m such a high energy person, doing Tai Chi made me nervous because it was too slow! The instructor had problems with me because I would pick up the tempo with the mood because I wanted to get to the end and he’s saying, ‘No Malia this is done slowly’…
I said, ‘I can’t do this, you’re giving me high blood pressure, I can’t do this class! Though I’m forever grateful for your help, calmness and peacefulness, so I’m giving it a chance’. But, it had the opposite effect on me because I’m a fast paced woman and I just want to get where I’m going.
The spiritual thing is all over California, which is the ‘spiritual state’ I believe. They do meditation, but I’m not into it, my spiritualism is God not Buddhism, not Yoga, I can’t do it, I would be lying if I said I did. Maybe if I took classes some of the aches and pains that I have would go away! A fun note is that I recently received my Yoga teacher certification. My Indian students practice a form of Yoga, everybody seems to be into it, if you go to where my children live, every corner used to be a Chinese restaurant and now it’s a Yoga and meditation studio, they’re everywhere! Mark is heavily into yoga, he needs to do as much as he can because when you grow older it gets harder, so he studies Fu Shu yoga; he does everything he can to keep himself in peak condition.
Fascinating! So, can you still do the splits and stuff like that?
I can do all the basics, straight punch, back fist, uppercut, well I have Russian splits and normal splits, I can still do that so that’s okay!
Could you tell us a favourite exercise that you could share or a training tip for people reading this interview right now?
If you’re trying to lose weight push yourself away from the table, don’t say yes to a second helping and if you’re training to be a martial artist be dedicated don’t be hot today and cold tomorrow. If you want to be number one make sure that you’re in the right art suited to your body. Take your time and before you get onto an art or fitness programme, realise why you’re doing it and what you want out of it, and don’t quit until you reach the reason you started it in the first place. Quitters don’t win and I am not fond of quitters!
Could you tell us the most daring physical feat you ever accomplished?
Well, actually it had nothing to do with martial arts! I’ve always been a pioneer in many avenues for women and when I was living on the islands I received a call from a friend of mine who was a welder in Alaska who was welding pipelines together. Anyway, they were having trouble with women’s lib here in California and were very upset because women could not work on an actual gas pipeline as a welder. Somebody wrote about that recently and said I was a welder, I was never a welder, I was a welder’s helper. I worked among thousands of men, slowly crawling across California working on a natural gas pipeline which was so dangerous. The environment was so scary, working with gas lines, because it’s really hard physical work, I mean it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done working with grinders and grinding pipe, sealing gas leaks and crawling in the pipes. I did it for two years and succeeded at what the union wanted me to accomplish and I wanted to accomplish -opening the door for other women to be welder’s helpers if they wanted to.
Wo! That’s a trailblazing story! So, what was your most serious injury and how did you work around it?
I have fractured vertebra in my lower back, that was why I developed a workout for my abs to be so strong because when I was young, I had an accident and was told that I’d be paralysed and never be able to walk again. I was going to be in a wheelchair if I didn’t have the operation they wanted for me. I listened to everything they wanted to do with me and the programme they devised and I walked away saying, if I do what you guys are asking me to do, I’ll be paralysed for sure -so I’m not going to do it! So, I went home, read up about my injury and developed an ab work programme to develop my stomach so that I never had to use my back all that much, so I’ve been able to overcome a fractured vertebra which is supposed to paralyse you. I probably have the worst rotator cuff injury ever from too much water skiing, snow skiing, and tricking in the water. I’ve had constant injuries one after the other, but I survive somehow and I just keep going.
Sounds pretty intense!
You do what you have to do, you look around and you think there are others that are worse off than you, or it could have been worse for me; you know I’m just very positive about life and that everything will turn out OK! So with anything that’s wrong, I don’t take time off and say I’m sick, (unless I have a temperature or the flu) I go and teach my classes whether I can do them or not. There’s nothing wrong with my voice, I always tell the students I can still yell and scream the same way, you (the student) just get out there and do it, I can still tell you what to do. Anyhow, that’s how I deal with it.
We don’t hear that kind of method very often!
I’m an unorthodox woman! I have faith in God and if it’s meant to be, it will be. My mother was a very powerful, strong woman and a lot of my faith and my strength came from her. Men are supposed to be the stronger sex with the attitude but my mom had a different view, ‘I want you to be strong, I don’t want you to be weak, snap out of it’, you know -that’s just kind of how I am. I was around a lot of strength when I grew up, my family and brothers were really strong, then getting involved in martial arts -I became attached to a strong group of people. Al too had a big influence on me in becoming who I am today.
That’s all very evident! Now we come to an interesting question, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
Most people don’t know that I’m a Christian, I pray, read my bible and go to church. I love God -people don’t know that about me; my faith, my belief is really strong. I might not look like I’m a church-going person but I am, God used his humour there! Many only think of God when things are going wrong and if they’re sad. But I think of Him every day, I start my day with Him, end my day with Him and in between. I read my bible and try to lead a good life maybe that’s why I’m so peaceful, so happy. I have a belief that everybody needs a belief and I believe in God, if you don’t have some sort of belief, shame on you!
That’s immense! If you could be a superhero who would you be and what superpower would you like to have?
I would be the Bionic Woman because she can see beyond, she’s stronger than everyone, she can run faster. I could then get somewhere faster than by plane, it would be cheaper to travel so no air fares, that’s why I would be bionic -it’d be wonderful! Who wouldn’t want to be bionic or have bionic parts and if something goes wrong, get it fixed!
What other hobbies do you have?
I like sports that you don’t have to be on a team for, that you can do on your own. I I used to do a lot of things like surfing, snow and water skiing; all that was needed for that was a boat and someone pulling me. I love walking, the woods and the forest, going to the ocean early in the morning and just watching the waves, I love lighthouses, there’s something mysterious about a lighthouse.
How delightful. Do you have a favourite type of music?
I love all music, I listen to music all the time and when teaching aerobic classes, I listen to this hard core wild music. I myself probably have a tendency to go for light classical and light jazz. I also love guitar and flamenco and I still love the Gypsy Kings, and anything fiery. I never used to like country music but over the years I’ve started to, I also like rock! I used to teach Michael McDonald, you know who used to be with the Doobie Brothers?
Michael McDonald are you kidding? “Shine sweet freedom shine your light on me…” love Michael McDonald! “Sweet Freedom”, is an absolute classic one of the best songs ever!
Yeah! Well, if I hadn’t gone into the fitness world I would never have met these people, but he was my client for a long time. They used to hire me to work with Michael because when he was busy writing music he’d eat a lot and he’d get big so when it was getting time for him to go on tour, they’d bring me in to go and get him trimmed down. I used to say when we didn’t work out to music, ‘Come on Michael sing!’ and he’d say ‘I can’t sing!’ He used to tell me he felt like a dog and that I was going to put a leash on him because every day I’d take him out for a run! We had a great time, I loved Michael he was one of my favourite clients, he’s just so talented, he still does great music, and still has that beautiful voice. Overall, I met lots of neat people in my lifetime.
Wonderful story thanks for sharing that! Could you tell us about the types of movies (other than martial arts) you like to see?
Well, I like romantic comedies, I went to see a movie the other night but it was not my favourite. One I recommend you go to see is one of my most recent favourite movies, “The 100 Foot Journey”, you have to go see it, you’re going to love it!
Great! I promise to check it out. Now, what one thing in life do you really hate and what’s one thing that you really love?
What I hate is prejudice. I’m a people person you can put me in a room with anybody, I don’t care who it is and right away they feel like they’ve known me forever because I‘ve been through times in my life when I didn’t feel comfortable and I don’t remember it, because sometimes it’s easy to block things that you don’t want to remember out, I’ve done that a lot in my life. I know how important it is for people to be comfortable if they feel like they’re out of place, I like to make everybody feel like someone cares about them, that they are important.
I don’t like racism thinking a person is black or white or yellow etc. There is no such thing to me; people are people and it makes me really sad to see people misuse old people, children or animals. We’re meant to be here to help each other and when I see people not helping it makes me really sad, but when I’m able to help someone else it makes me really happy. I dislike people who think they are better than anybody else because they may have more money etc.
What I love is to see people being kind; I love it if you see somebody that’s down and out and you’re kind enough to help them; if you see somebody cold, to take off your favourite coat and give it to them to help them keep warm. If you see somebody hungry give them something to eat.
We wonder why we have so many people that turn out rotten, a lot of kids get involved in drugs, and other people kill people. Maybe if somebody was kinder or paid more attention to them they wouldn’t have turned out like that. The world is in the hands of each person and it’s each person’s responsibility to do something kind. I’m a firm believer that just because someone did something bad to you doesn’t mean you have to go out and do bad to somebody else. Turn the other cheek, forgive and forget.
Kung Fu virtues?
Yes! I always get a big kick out of teaching people how to do what they never thought they could because they were so scared. When they win, that is such a rush for me, when I see their faces and think ‘Wow look at what I taught them and look what they can do for themselves now!’ To give to others who perhaps nobody else would give to.
That’s brilliant and extremely inspiring Malia! Would you say that’s your proudest accomplishment helping people realise the best in themselves?
Yes, I feel blessed and proud about what I can give to people, I can help by getting them thin or teaching them to eat healthier or I can help people get recognised. Well you certainly are the centre of attention when you’re doing a form or fighting and when you can give a person that experience to know what it feels like for a moment to be number one that’s really a cool thing!
Marvellous! So, what’s on the horizon for you; what are you keen to accomplish in the next five years?
Well to remain alive would be nice! If I can make it for another five years in good health, I would like to develop certain people that don’t think they could amount to anything and show them just how brilliant they really are. I’d like to see world peace, there’s not much I can do about world peace except being kind to others and extend a warm helping hand.
I would like to do something with Mark and Al. I just want to continue being a happy person. Maybe somewhere along the line I’ll fall in love again, love is nice. For my son Craig, I love to watch him growing and maturing in his business. He is amazing in what he does and how he does it. My sons are the best of friends, always have been and always will be. Mark is a great father to my grandchildren and Craig is a doting uncle.
I’m hoping to do more adventurous things soon so we’ll see. I am so grateful and so blessed with everything in my life. I have wonderful students everywhere I go. When I’m in Germany I had so much fun, I’m hoping to go to Morocco, I want to go on a camel ride out to the desert and do a lot of adventurous things that I haven’t done for a while. So I have a student who is from Morocco so maybe I’ll go there to do some work and I’m looking forward to that; who knows how I’ll be accepted in that country, we’ll soon see!
Thanks for sharing that. What advice would you give to a beginner, perhaps to women who were considering taking up a martial art, what would you recommend?
Well they have to go to a few schools, check them out, and ask themselves why they want to take it?
Do you want to learn self-defence? For that, you can go strictly to a self-defence school.
Do you want to do it for relaxation? Did you know you can do forms for fun if you have no interest in fighting? Do you want to become number one in fighting and make your dream happen? A lot of these things I’ve just said never crosses many women’s minds; they don’t have to just attend a karate class for the sake of it. If you know the reason for everything you do, then you won’t be disappointed.
What special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers, your students and fans around the world right now?
I’d just like to say that I love all my fans from all over the world (including from your city, London; I loved the people there and those big, old taxi cabs which you could almost live in)! My fans seem to be everywhere, they’re so warm and they send me nice greetings, thank you! I’m just grateful that I’m now in the older generation and that I’m still remembered -it’s such an honour to be walking down the street and somebody asks for your autograph because they remember you from the past. I just want to thank everybody for always supporting me, I love you all!
No doubt you’ll get people taking selfies with you too -uber cool! What’s one warrior wisdom quote or concept that you really love, something that’s given you a lot of motivation and helped you become who you are today?
Well, in the Bible we have the story of Job, one of the wealthiest men in the Bible who had the most property, cattle and so on. The Devil suggests a test to God to see how much of a follower Job really is, and take everything away. His children were killed of diseases, his friends left him, he had not a penny to his name and he was probably the poorest person in the Bible; little by little he was stripped of everything he owned but he still never lost his faith in God. My point is, even after all these horrible things, the Devil didn’t win; Job still loved God and at the end, God blessed him with more of everything including wealth than he ever had in his whole life. The man of faith, that’s one of stories that I love in the Bible. Similar thing with David and Goliath, it’s all in how much you believe in yourself.
When you put it like that, it’s certainly fu for thought! Do you have a website, or, how can people find out about your teachings, classes and such?
Word of mouth, I’m the best kept secret. I’m very quiet about myself, nobody really knows much about me -word of mouth is how I get all my clients. I’m on Facebook, you can look me up ‘Malia Bernal’ even though I don’t use it much.
True, word of mouth is the best advertising, so you don’t need advertise your classes at all?
I’m not interested in having a big following, I like to have small groups here and there, I don’t want to have a school. I enjoy teaching privately, I don’t want to be tied down to a business. I like to pick up and go whenever I want to. I like to know that if I decide I don’t want to teach this anymore, I don’t have a boss over my head, I am my own boss. Lot of reasons why I don’t keep a lot of things is because I like freedom.
Goes back to Michael’s song “Sweet Freedom” doesn’t it? That’s ideal, there are probably not a lot of people who could say they have freedom!
Exactly! What I will say is that if anyone wants to become a champion in form tournaments or want me to choreograph their competition material, I’ll be interested to do that. They can message me at [email protected] and I’ll answer or they can find me on Facebook: Malia Bernal.
Well, what can I say Malia? It’s been an honour and privilege to spend some time with a true martial arts legend; this has been totally eye-opening and incredible! We’re eternally grateful that you’ve shared your amazing story with us -a superstar and role model in the hearts of so many in the martial arts world and beyond. We hope we’ve given readers a vivid and memorable glimpse into the life and legend of Malia Bernal. Please keep in touch!
Thank you Raj and Kung Fu Kingdom, it’s been a real pleasure and I thank you for taking the time and hearing what I have to say, let’s stay connected!