Many movies have brought a dynamic portrayal of martial arts fighting to the big screen through experts such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Even children’s movies such as Karate Kid and the animated Kung Fu Panda have used the power of martial arts at the centre of their story. Yet there is far more to martial arts than combat and a way of learning self-defence. Martial arts embody spiritual development as well as physical training. Within the very essence of martial arts training are core values such as courage, tolerance and respect for all living things.
The martial arts experience
In learning martial arts you’ll improve your cardio fitness, core strength, and flexibility. It’s also the kind of sport many families enjoy together, says Sensei Pam Smith, National Coaching Director Australian Karate Federation. “Whole families join clubs. You’ll have Mum, Dad and the kids training — sometimes sibling rivalry comes into it and at others you find Mum and Dad try to outdo each other, but it’s all in good fun,” says Sensei Smith.
Students of martial arts begin their training for many reasons. For some it’s to increase their physical fitness and flexibility, while others want to learn the art of self defence or to increase their confidence and self esteem. As they follow their own path, the reasons people continue to study martial arts evolve to a much deeper level, says Sa Bum Nim Ron Rees, senior instructor in hapkido. “The very nature of martial arts is a process of character building; it becomes a very personal journey,” he says.
Through martial arts you’ll also develop perseverance, discipline, loyalty and serenity, qualities that can benefit you in your daily life. Martial arts will enhance your understanding of the natural world you live in and help you to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships with others.
“It doesn’t matter what discipline you do, the ultimate aim of a martial art is to be in harmony with yourself and the people around you,” says Sensei Tony Smibert President, National Aikido Association of Australia. Training in martial arts can also immerse you in the culture and language of the country of its origin if you choose.
Choosing the style for you
There are many different types of martial arts, ranging from gentle forms of tai chi to more moderately physical aikido and hapkido, and then more intensely physical judo. Unlike with many other types of sports, your ability to do martial arts doesn’t end as you reach middle age. “Even if you’ve never considered martial arts until your 40s, 50s and beyond, you can still gain enormous benefits,” says Sensei Smith. “Martial arts can also improve your self esteem and allow you to take more control of your life. It’s very empowering,” she says.
The way you progress through different levels of mastery varies between the different martial arts. It generally includes attaining different coloured belts that symbolise progress by achieving set objectives. Beginners are usually white belt and then progress through to black belt; black belt seniors then progress to 1st Dan, 2nd Dan and 3rd Dan and so on. Not all disciplines use the belt grading system.
How to choose
With different types of martial arts available, and many schools (dojos) offering classes, when choosing what and where you want to study, assess these three important things:
- The art they are practising ought to appeal to you. You need to be able to look at it and say to yourself, I’d like to do that, says Sensei Smibert.
- Check the credentials of the school very carefully. Anyone can set up a school and rank themselves to any rank they choose. Ensure the school is internationally recognised so you know they are the real deal.
- Assess the kimochi (the feeling or vibe within the place). It doesn’t matter if it’s a martial art you want to learn and even if the instructors have recognised credentials. If you don’t feel comfortable, try another school, suggests Sensei Smibert.
When you begin your journey learning martial arts you may also discover that after a while the martial art doesn’t seem to be what you had anticipated. Don’t be disheartened. “Often you need to try several different styles before you find one that feels like the right fit for you,” suggests Sa Bum Nim Rees. “All martial arts develop you in different ways. They will be going to the same end but the path you take can be quite different from art to art.”
To assist you in beginning on the martial arts path here’s a guide to some of the more common forms. Tai chi is addressed in an article on its own in this issue.
Harmonising the body and universal spirit — this is the way of aikido. Aikido is made up of three characters. The first is ai, meaning “to come together, to harmonise”. The second, ki, represents inner energy. The third, do, translates to “the way”.
Aikido is the virtual new kid on the block within the vast cache of martial art disciplines. It evolved from traditional jujitsu and was practised and refined through the lifetime of its founder Morihei Ueshiba, who died in 1969. He believed it to be a purification system for both mind and body.
“Aikido incorporates circular, flowing movements. It is all about another person’s energy harmonising with your own energy,” says Sensei Smibert, whose teacher was an apprentice to the founder of aikido. “All training is a means of biofeedback,” he says. “Whatever we do is preceded by mental intention — mind and body need to be co-ordinated and in harmony with the physical energy of the other person. Movements are of evasion and control rather than an enemy that has to be overcome.
“The ki in aikido also gives people great strength in relation to their size. Once you learn to access that energy you’ll be very strong and you have dangerous techniques you could apply, so you are instantly responsible for being gentle,” says Sensei Smibert. “Aikido has also been described as a form of moving meditation. You need to be calm within while you are physically moving.”
Aikido can also involve spiritual elements of deep meditation and chanting. One of the mediation and chanting practices Sensei Smibert takes part in is a powerful way to connect to the universe. “In winter we hike up a mountain and sit under the stars, chanting and meditating, and in the early hours of the morning we hike to the summit and sit looking straight at the sun as it rises. You see the movement of the universe and begin to see yourself connected to the universe,” he says.
Kung fu is arguably one of the world’s most widely known martial art forms. It is an ancient style of fighting and discipline incorporating many body movements including feet, legs, arms, hands, body, head and eyes. True kung fu teaching encourages students to avoid fighting, but knowing you have the ability to defend yourself can build inner confidence.
“Kung fu is an ideal all-round exercise that has a broad range of holistic health benefits,” says Master (Sifu) Alice Bei Dong, former Asian World Champion. “It improves both physical and mental health — and promotes an overall sense of wellbeing.
“Kung Fu’s origins are deeply rooted in Chinese history and culture,” says Master Bei Dong. There has been some debate about when it began. Some historians say 4th century monks incorporated kung fu to keep them physically and mentally fit while following their rigorous meditation demands and preparing for the afterlife. However, the reality is no one really knows its exact origin.
From its early beginnings, it evolved to many different styles and is regarded as an open-form of martial art, meaning it can be modified and adapted.
Kung fu helps you to develop both inner vitality and your mind. “At its very core is the practice of aligning with ki, the universal energy or life force which surrounds all living things,” says Master Bei Dong. “In kung fu you use the force of ki — every movement incorporates ki to control your mind, body and balance,” she says.
Kung fu is suitable for all age groups and fitness levels, as students can work to their comfort levels based on their physical abilities. It is also very beneficial to more mature participants as it helps maintain strength and improves flexibility and balance. Practising kung fu is also a great way to reduce your stress levels.