The Ekata team represents combined decades of training and experience in fitness and martial arts, and each member is passionate about helping you achieve total, lasting fitness.

Meet the Founders

Head Instructor, Co-Founder

Sifu Ed has studied a variety of martial arts for nearly 40 years, holding a black belt or equivalent rank and instructor’s certification in Jeet Kune Do, Savate, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu, Karate and Kung Fu. He has competed in numerous full-contact competitions, including full-contact karate, kickboxing, Savate, Muay Thai and “no rules” tournaments.

As a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, he studies the effects of movement-based awareness training on children and adults to improve their ability to focus and learn more effectively. As a professor, he teaches mind/body connectivity through the study of movement in the Department of Theater, Film, and Television, as well as applied exercise science and Eastern philosophy. He is responsible for the physical conditioning of students on a department-wide basis.

He has studied with many world-renowned Martial Arts Masters including Bruce Lee’s students Sifu Jerry Poteet and Guru Dan Inosanto. He has also studied with many great Lamas, Gurus and teachers of Eastern philosophy and religion. He was personally trained in Jeet Kune Do by Sifu Poteet, named by Inside Kung Fu magazine as “unquestionably the greatest Jeet Kune Do Instructor in the world.”

Ed has also assisted instructing courses in defensive tactics for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Force Training Unit and has trained in Special Weapons and Tactics with DEA Mobile Enforcement Team II.

He has privately trained many celebrities including Val Kilmer, John Malkovich, Alicia Silverstone, and Julianne Moore.

Certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as an athletic trainer, Ed was chosen one of America’s Top 100 Trainers in 2005 by Men’s Journal magazine, and one of the top 5 in Los Angeles. In 2010 Ed was inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame and voted “Martial Arts Leader of the Year.”


Sifu JoAnn has made a habit of breaking with convention. A British Columbia native, she moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s to work in Hollywood as a makeup, hair, massage, and design specialist. After a successful career working with many A-list stars on top productions, she changed direction to pursue her love of physical expression through the study of martial arts.

She was one of the first women in the United States to receive the coveted rank of “Silver Glove” (Black Belt Equivalent) in Boxe Francaise Savate, after just a few years of training. Shortly afterward, she was voted the first female president of the American Federation of Boxe Francaise Savate.

JoAnn continued training, earning instructor’s certification in Muay Thai (under Kru Surapuk Jamjuntr and Kru Saekson Janjira) and Jeet Kune Do (under Sifu Jerry Poteet and Sifu Fran Joseph). Even after suffering a debilitating knee injury that led to a complete ACL replacement, in 2003 she won the U.S. Championship in Boxe Francaise Savate Assaut, which later led to competition in the World Cup of Boxe Francaise Savate in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, where she claimed the title of World Vice-Champion (No. 2 in the world) after fighting five times in less than 24 hours!

After winning her world title at age 45, JoAnn turned her attention to figure competition, athletic competition that entails showcasing the body’s aesthetic lines. The criteria are similar to bodybuilding, but women are judged on symmetry of the body as related to athleticism and not the size of musculature. JoAnn won two regional championships plus the California State Championship Open Division against women half her age.

JoAnn has an uncanny ability to teach and communicate information so that others can enjoy success in reaching their own personal goals.

Staff Instructors

Sifu Casey Monaghan
Kids and teen classes, adult kickboxing

Having grown up around martial arts, Casey, son of Sifu Ed, has been a longtime student, beginning serious training at age 13, and having since earned his instructor black belt.

He has competed in numerous Savate assault competitions, and placed 4th/5th in the world at the 2014 Savate World Championship in Rome. In addition to Savate, he focuses on Jeet Kune Do, has competed in Muay, and has had practice in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

“I believe Ekata’s success lies in the fundamental drive to positively affect every person who steps through the door. Martial arts becomes a vehicle by which one realizes their true potential and teaches us immense amounts about who we are,” Casey says.

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Kristen DeBenedetto

Kristen DeBenedetto has been a longtime student of dance, and specializes in ballet, jazz, and modern dance. She heads up Ekata’s ballet program, and teaches Panda Ballet, Youth ballet, and Adult Classical Ballet, in addition to Sunday’s Cardio Ballet class.

She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in dance education from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts and has been teaching dance since age 14.

“Dance allows the dancer to express themselves in an organic way that cannot be replicated. It frees the spirit and heals the soul,” Kristen says.

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Mike Hassan
Kettlebell and Combat Jiu Jitsu

A martial artist for more than 15 years, Mike Hassan’s disciplines include Walt Bayless Combat Jiu Jitsu (he is a black belt), Shito-Ryu Karate, Savate, JKD, Japanese Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai, and Tae Kwon Do. He focuses on helping people find their physical strength and mental power.

In 2013-2015 he won multiple bronze, silver and gold medals in Jiu Jitsu competitions, and was a bronze medalist in the 2013 IKLF Championships for kettlebell.

“Since I started training with kettlebells in 2010, I’ve been able to hit numerous personal records, and this style of training has opened my eyes to how versatile one tool can be in boosting strength and athletic performance,” Mike says.

Jiu Jitsu Competitions

• 2013 North American Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (NABJJF) Worlds NoGi (Bronze Medal) lightweight division

• 2014 NABJJF LA International NoGi (Silver Medal) lightweight division

• 2014 NABJJF LA International NoGi (Gold Medal) absolute division

• 2014 NABJJF North American NoGi (Silver Medal) lightweight division

• 2015 NABJJF LA International NoGi (Bronze Medal) lightweight division

Kettlebell Competition

• 2013 IKLF Championships (Bronze Medal) Double Jerk (150-200lb weight class)

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Derek Velia
Private Training, Kickboxing, Jeet Kune Do

Derek is a certified JKD instructor and National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer. He specializes in fitness training and martial arts. He is certified in Functional Movement Systems (FMS) and holds a brown belt in Xuan Tong gung fu, a purple belt in combat Jiu Jitsu, and a silver glove in Savate.

Derek has competed in kickboxing competitions, and has won gold, silver, and bronze medals in BJJ competitions, as well as bronze medals in kettlebell competitions.

“I love Ekata because every time I walk in greeted by my students and friends, this truly feels like a home away from home,” he says.

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Greg Wengert
Little Pandas, Dragon Program, BJJ

Greg has a natural ability to connect with kids, and is an instructor for the Little Pandas Program, in addition to instructing the JKD Dragons Program, and the teen and adult Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Dragons Program. He holds a blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

He focuses on training both kids and adults with a goal of growing as students and increasing their skills.

“Being part of Ekata has changed my life for the better. It has given me positive goals to focus on, and I’m constantly improving my mind and body,” Greg says.

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Heather Evans

Heather grew up dancing and teaching ballet, jazz, and hip-hop, and has been teaching Zumba for five years. She is AFAA Group Fitness Certified, and has certifications in Zumba, Zumba Kids, Zumba Gold, Zumba in the Circuit, and Toning.

She danced professionally for the Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle Sonics, in addition to international resorts, dance teams in Seattle and Los Angeles. She has also choreographed and taught at multiple dance studios.

Heather is a firm believer in the power of Zumba, as she has seen its effects in her life, helping her bounce back after three pregnancies (with 40-50 pound weight gains) and post-partum depression.

“Ekata is all about mind, body, and spirit – an important trinity I follow in my own life as a way of taking charge of one’s health and life,” says Heather.

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Michael Ha
Adult Jeet Kune Do, Kids Gung-Fu, Kids Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

The study and practice of martial arts has been a passion for Michael for more than 30 years, starting at age 6 with his training in Tae Kwon Do.

He has studied a wide range of martial arts disciplines, including Kali/Escrima, Pencak Silat, Tang Soo Do, Hwa Rang Do, Boxe Francais Savate, Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Judo, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Jeet Kune Do (both original and JKD Concepts), and Xuan Tong Gung-Fu.

He currently instructs adults Jeet Kune Do levels 1 and 2, kids Gung-Fu level 3, and kids Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Other classes he has taught at Ekata include Kali/Escrima, Savate, and Muay Thai.

“Something I love about Ekata is getting to work with the students and help them develop their disciplines,” Michael says.

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Leo Hobocienski Vargas
Behavioral Specialist, Theatre Classes

With experience in multiple disciplines, Leo is Ekata’s resident behavioral specialist and is a master teaching artist who leads Friday theatre classes for youth in our after-school program.

He is an actor, dancer, singer, and all-around performer, as well as a leadership and performance coach.

“I love Ekata, because they share my values and my commitment to creating and instilling community among all that we touch daily,” Leo says.


Shaka (Louis Hurd)
CIZE and Kids/Youth Hip-Hop

Shaka (Louis Hurd) is a 18-year dance industry veteran. He has performed on numerous stages from New York to L.A and internationally. He is an expert dance instructor with a knack for pulling the best out of his students. He loves to inspire others and his energy is contagious. He lives in Santa Clarita with his wife of 13 years and his two children, ages 8 and 11. He is certified to teach CIZE by Shaun T.


Tammy Alvarez

Tammy’s love for yoga was a slow process. After taking her first yoga class, she didn’t step foot on a yoga mat for another 13 years! She eventually found her way back into a yoga class by happenstance. There’s a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Before stepping back onto the mat, she’d been practicing being present for eight years. Yoga isn’t just an exercise, it is a way of life. Tammy fell in love with the philosophy of this ancient practice. When she started volunteering at her son’s school, she taught yoga to 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade students. After seeing the children grow and becoming more confident in what they were doing was when she realized EVERYONE would benefit from practicing yoga! Having been AFAA and Mad Dogg Certified, she decided to add a new element of wellness to her resume and become certified to teach yoga through YogaWorks. Tammy is continuing her education in yoga because she believes it is a LIFELONG journey. “I love sharing the transformative process of yoga. Practicing yoga led me down the path of self-acceptance and awareness. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to hold a safe space for students to evolve into the best part of themselves on the mat — and eventually into the world. Namaste.” — Tammy Alvarez

Guest Instructors

Ekata enjoys excellent relationships with some of the world’s top instructors in martial arts and fitness.


Sifu Fran Poteet-Joseph
Master Jeet Kune Do Instructor

Fran is a protégé of famed JKD instructor Jerry Poteet, and she has been teaching Jeet Kune Do for over 25 years. She is only one of two instructors with a Senior (Masters) Level in Jerry Poteet’s JKD Association. Like her husband, she is a film fight choreographer and trainer. She taught Jason Scott Lee the double nunchucks for the movie Dragon, The Bruce Lee Story and has worked with Kurt Russell and Kevin Sorbo, among others.

Fran holds black belts in several martial arts, and is an expert in Wing Chun, Excrima/Kali, Hwarang Do, etc., but she focuses on the art and philosophy of Jeet Kune Do. She teaches JKD to men and women in the Los Angeles area, and strives to make each class exciting and inspirational. Fran has the outstanding ability to make every person or class she teaches feel special, while having a blast!


Professor Nicolas Saignac
Boxe Francaise Savate Professor

Professor Saignac is a former French Cup full-contact champion and the higest ranking Savateur in the United States. he has coached fighters and given seminars throughout the world. He is an instrumental leader in the development and growth of Boxe Francaise Savate in the USA. He holds the rank of Professor and Second Degree Silver as granted by the French Federation of Boxe Francaise Savate.


Kru Surapuk Jamjuntr
Expert Muay Thai Instructor

Kru (Teacher) Surapuk Jamjuntr, nicknamed “Puk,” entered his first Muay Thai camp at age 11. He studied for one year before his first ring fight, which he won by knocking out his opponent during the first round. Puk fought for a career total of 75 fights (60 wins, 12 losses, and 3 draws).

After coming to the U.S., Puk opened The Muay Thai Academy of America in 1987, which is located in North Hollywood. Since the MTA’s opening, Puk and his co-instructors have produced many national and world Muay Thai champions and considered the leaders in the development and teachings of Thai martial arts.

Today with nearly 45 years of Muay Thai experience, Puk continues to teach new students, develop better fighters, and spread the tradition of Muay Thai to all people who desire to learn. He is well known and is respected by all past and present Muay Thai champions, trainers, and promoters throughout Thailand and the United States.


Professor Luiz Baek
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Professor

Professor Luiz Baek is a Brazilian native born in Sao Paulo where he began the study of “the gentle art.” Professor Baek has studied martial arts for over 25 years and is a certified Machado black belt instructor. He also holds the rank of 5th degree black belt in Hapkido and 4th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Luiz has been practicing and teaching BJJ and self-defense to security, military, and law enforcement personnel in the US for over 10 years. He is the founder and chief instructor of the Baek Academy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Burbank.


Grand Master Ting-Jue Zhou
Master Martial Artist/Healer

Master Zhou Ting-Jue is a Qi Gong, Tai Chi, and Kung Fu Grand Master and Master Medical Qi Gong Healer who has been featured on numerous television programs, such as Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, That’s Incredible, and the History Channel’s hit show Stan Lee’s Superhumans, in recognition of his amazing abilities – which have been verified by ample scientific, diagnostic and medical research documentation for decades.

Master Zhou is an extraordinary living treasure who has both taught and given healing treatments to everyone from his Holiness the Dalai Lama, the LA Lakers, to Olympians, spiritual master, artists, celebrities, and dignitaries world- wide. He is often called “The Healer’s Healer.”


Mestre Amen Santo
Master Capoeirista

Mestre Santo dedicated himself to Capoeira at the young age of seven. He was educated in ritual dance and rhythms by frequenting his Mae de Santo’s terriero (temple) near by in San Paulo, Brazil. Amen followed his cultural roots to become a world famous Master Capoeirista, musician, and dancer. He has acted in roles practicing his art in two Hollywood movies, Only the Strong and Kickboxer 4, creating much of the former’s fight choreography. He is founding director of the Capoeira Batuque group of Capoeiristas, and currently oversees the group’s schools internationally. He is the father of three children.


Milo Levell
Hip Hop Dance Instructor

Getting his start at the famous Voight Fitness and Dance Center in the heart of Hollywood, California, Milo’s Hip Hop Fitness class atttracted Hollywood’s elite, including Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Diana Ross, Jessica Alba, and many others. Milo is the first in the USA to have his own “Hip Hop Fitness Dance” TV show produced by actress Mimi Rogers. Subsequently, the team produced 3 very successful dance fitness videos and Hip Hop Fitenss earned the title of the next best workout!