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Jiu Jitsu classes build confidence, self-defense skills

Posted Thursday, June 30, 2022 12:00 am

By Shaun Ryan

Danny Yakel doesn’t pull punches when he speaks about his love for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. “Jiu Jitsu changed my life,” he says. “It’s made me a better person.”

Now, Yakel — a black belt in his martial art of choice — wants to share what he’s learned with others in the Ponte Vedra area. He teaches classes for both children and adults, as well as a women’s-only self-defense class at the link in Nocatee.

It’s an ideal discipline, especially for the latter group, as the practitioner does not have to be powerful or physically large. It’s all about technique.

“Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art based in self-defense,” Yakel said. “It uses leverage, angles and techniques for a smaller person to have an advantage over a larger person.” Yakel said he is supportive of strong women and, “I hate, hate, hate bullies — especially men thinking they can bully women.”

He has seen the women in his classes grow in confidence as they learn that they have the ability to defend themselves. And sometimes that confidence is enough to deter an attacker. Yakel teaches his students to use their voices during an encounter to project that confidence. “We’re not making MMA fighters out of them,” he said. “But we’re giving them the confidence to stand taller, be stronger and not be afraid.”

And, when necessary, fend attackers off with skills learned in class.

“The number one thing we teach is: have fun,” he said. “The second thing we teach is: You will never be a victim.”

In his other adult classes, Yakel and his assistants teach the skills in a traditional, straight-forward way. But in the children’s classes, they incorporate games and little competitions to hold his students’ interest.

Colored belts designating progress also help keep interest high. There are belts for children and belts for adults, but the latter are available only to students who are at least 16. The progression is white, blue, purple, brown and — for those who are at least 18 — black. In between, stripes are added to the belts to denote progress.

The belt colors terminate at red, though that’s not a color you will generally see.

“Those are the masters,” Yakel said. “Those are the guys who have been training 40, 50, 60 years.”

A lifelong journey

Originally from Wisconsin, Yakel joined the military when he was 17. That’s when he began practicing Tae Kwon Do. Then, he joined the U.S. Army Special Forces in 1996 and discovered Midori Yama Budokai Japanese Jiu Jitsu and worked his way up to third-degree blackbelt. He also trained extensively in Muay Thai kickboxing, modern army combatives and Aikido.

In 2004, he took up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. And, though he has earned his first-degree blackbelt in that martial art, he continues to train 18 years later.

“It’s a lifelong journey,” he said. “It’s not something you start and it just ends.”

He studies under Master Luiz Palhares, and eighth-degree coral belt and probably one of the highest ranking practitioners on the East Coast. In an art that respects origins and continuity, it is notable that Palhares — and by extension, Yakel — can trace his lineage in very short order to the legendary Gracie family, who established Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a spinoff of the Japanese martial art.

Yakel has had to use his skills in combat and in street fights.

“I’ve used it when people have been trying to kill me,” he said. “So, I know it works.”

A huge advantage

Yakel pointed out some of the benefits of Jiu Jitsu beyond self-defense. He said the training itself shapes the student and gives them confidence. Its demands prompt students to eat better, lose weight, get healthier.

It also helps elevate a person’s mood and reinforce coping mechanisms.

“Say you’re working at your job, and you let things stress you out that you shouldn’t,” Yakel said. “Now, you train Jiu Jitsu and you realize: Man, I just spent the last hour and a half with 15 guys who were trying to kick my butt — and I’ve dealt with it. I feel good. Now, I’m able to handle the stressful situation.”

He called it a “huge advantage” to be able to teach at the link because it saves him from having to fund all the expenses associated with launching a new business, though that is his eventual goal.

“I can’t thank Gurpreet and Raghu (Misra) enough for giving me the opportunity to teach here,” he said.

The Misras opened the link one year ago at 425 Town Plaza Ave., Ponte Vedra Beach. Yakel teaches adults 6:30 to 7:30 a.m. and 8-9 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Kids’ classes are 6-7 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays. Women’s self-defense is taught 7-8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays.

Because these classes are open to link members only, Yakel has launched eight-week introductory classes in Jiu Jitsu for adults and children and women’s self-defense for members and nonmembers alike. Then, nonmembers may choose to continue their studies by joining the link.

For more information or to sign-up, go to and click the appropriate category.

To learn more about Yakel and his business, go to To learn more about training offered by Palhares, go to

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