For Billy Blanks, true fitness is as much about building spiritual strength as it is about the physical.
“Life is not easy,” the creator of the martial-arts-based workout Tae Bo tells Yahoo Life. “It's hard to fix a broken world when you’re broken on the inside. But when you start growing from within, all of a sudden that light you walk with starts to blow over onto other people.”
That’s a philosophy he’s carried since childhood, when martial arts was an escape from bullies who targeted him for having dyslexia. Karate, he says, gave him permission to dream big.
“At that time, nobody knew what dyslexia was,” he says of the reading disability. “They put me in special education, thinking that I was mentally handicapped — but I was not. I was a shy kid that had a learning disorder. And when I got involved in martial arts, it gave me the confidence to be out on my own, and I realized I could be successful.”
The word "success" is an understatement for Blanks, 67, who created the Tae Bo workout (a combination of all his passions: martial arts, boxing and dance) while running a small karate studio in Quincy, Mass., in the late-1970s. At the time, he had no idea it would become a pop culture phenomenon.
The idea was simple: “Put karate to music,” understanding that every punch and kick “has to be in your heart,” he says. “I wanted women to feel like warriors.”
Originally called “karobics,” Tae Bo’s name change, meant to appeal as much to men as women, combines the word “tae,” which means “legs” in Korean, and bo, a shortened form of “boxing.” Its workout video series would soon became an all-time best-seller, with an estimated 1.5 million sets selling by the end of the 1990s; today, Blanks’s virtual workouts continue to gather new swarms of online fans.
“It had always been a vision and a dream that, one day, I'm gonna come up with an exercise that would change the world,” says Blanks. His Christian faith has always shaped his philosophies around health and fitness; he even pulled inspiration for his on-camera personality from watching televised sermons.
“I look and act like my mind and will” was (and still is) his mantra, he says. “It all starts from the inside out, not the outside in.” But that doesn’t mean his faith hasn’t been tested.
Blanks recalls a memorable business meeting in the 1990s in California, where Tae Bo was gaining immense popularity among women. Executives for “one of the biggest video companies in the world” told him he wouldn’t be able to “appeal to white women” in middle America because he was a Black man.
“They said, ‘Mr. Blanks, you know, we like the things that you talk about, but you being Black, we don't think you'll work in the Midwest.’ I said, ‘OK, that's it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it,’” he says, after which he and his manager walked out. “My manager, his mouth just [dropped]. He couldn’t believe it.”
“I said, let's go back to my studio and keep on doing what I'm doing, you know, because eventually, maybe one day I'll end up doing a video,'" he remembers saying.
Never one to let things fester, Blanks says it’s all about “pushing on” when you’re faced with challenges. Also, it's important to "stay humble" when you seemingly have the world at your fingertips.
“Personally, I gotta take myself out of the picture, because if it wasn’t for God and if it wasn’t for people, Billy Blanks would be nothing. I didn't allow my ego to get into that path,” he says of fame. “People say to me, ‘You should retire. You should do this.’ No, no. I want to get out there. I want to be around people. I want to help people.”
True to his word, Blanks is not slowing down. The fitness icon is still making Tae Bo videos — for free, on his YouTube channel. His latest video series, Billy’s BoomBoxing, available on iTunes, was released in 2019, his first in 19 years. And he’s got some thoughts about aging with grace.
“I can still get up. I feel vibrant. I feel like I can do anything,” he says. “But if I get up and start thinking all these negative thoughts in my head, my day will be horrible. So, my goal is to get up, look in the mirror and say, ‘OK, Billy, you gotta… change your mind, change your attitude. Because I know if I want to have a good day, it ain’t gonna come by itself. It’s a choice I have to make.”
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