Want to become a Shaolin monk in the fifth century? No problem. All you have to do is walk into the monastery and answer a few questions. If the Abbot believes you are genuine (and that part might be a little trickier than you think), you can start right away. The next part is even easier. Just give away all your possessions, vow to never get married and sign over your inheritance.

You are now the property of the monastery. Don't plan on much sleep, fancy meals or, say, hot water. How long does all this take? Until you get it right. Sound bleak? It is, but this crucible of discipline and unending asceticism forged some of the world's great martial arts masters; warriors and priests who would serve the people of China for centuries. Today, these original principals and precepts, undiluted by the assault of pop action movies and TV shows are still the basis for teaching bravery, self-discipline and adaptability. That's what Jerry and Nancy Simon have been doing six days a week for 30 years at Villari Self Defense at 63 Unquowa Road, Fairfield.

The Simons arrive in the waiting room wearing the traditional Karate uniforms known a Gis. Both instructors have achieved sixth degree black belt status. If this were a corporation, they'd have corner offices with million-dollar views. But that sort of thinking doesn't fly around here. There are no company cars, expense accounts or late lunches. Instead, there is a seemingly never ending supply of students, from age 5 to 75 -- boys, girls, men and women who are there to have their minds, bodies and spirits nurtured, challenged and exercised in order to live a more fulfilling life.

Jerry and Nancy are an interesting pair. He, quick on the draw, mercurial, staccato in demeanor, but with clear, fast-focusing eyes that have obviously seen a lot over the years. She, quietly confident in movement with a gentle, calming voice. Her Yin to his Yang

Thirty years ago the couple met while studying for their master's degrees in Boston. Jerry was concerned about his then-fiancé's safety on the mean streets, so he enrolled the two of them in a practical self-defense class. "I just went to be nice," he says, "to keep her company."

The martial arts practice kept up while the two concluded their studies, with Jerry eventually earning degrees in psychology and elementary education, and Nancy earning a degree in psychology followed later by a master's in criminal justice. This last is particularly helpful today in helping students to determine exactly when and where self-defense tactics are appropriate. And seven years as chief rehabilitation counselor in a school for emotionally disturbed and learning disabled children gave Jerry an unique clinical perspective that aids invaluably in assessing the personalities of students.

The goals of the studio are clear-cut and simple for students, both young and old, to understand. Most importantly, this curriculum is mind, body, and spirit driven. "It's a search to find a way to be a better person," says Nancy, "to be less competitive with other people and to live the kind of lifestyle you would be proud of. We teach children avoidance of peer pressure and how to be confident within themselves. The benefit of this secure and confidant behavior is that it short-circuits bullies."

Walk into a class in session and a few things become immediately apparent. It's quiet. Right away, there's a sort of, "What's wrong with this picture?" sort of feeling. After all, this is a room full of kids in close proximity with no jostling, joking or general fooling around. These kids are, amazingly, serious about this. Nancy's tone is gentle but absolutely confident as she runs the students through the various traditional animal-based forms of movement like the Dragon, the Tiger and the famous Crane, the Karate Kid's big move in the eponymous film. She calls each student by their surname when she makes subtle corrections in their form. The general mood is one of patience and respect that trickles down from the instructor to the older students, to the youngest. It brings out the best in everyone.

"One of the nicest dynamics I've seen," says Nancy, "are children you wouldn't anticipate being great role models for smaller children because they're a bit antagonistic themselves. Suddenly I've seen them turn into completely different individuals. They become kind, nurturing and they key into the fact that the smaller kid is having a bad day, or some stuff's going on at home -- amazing transformation!"

Nancy and Jerry have created a little utopian world in their studio. A world where power comes from not from aggression, but from stillness and inner confidence. Where the littlest ones can teach lessons in life to the biggest ones. And the greatest character trait is real humility. Got that Grasshopper?