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Martial Arts

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The martial arts are a collection of ancient methods of unarmed or armed combat. These days, they are most often used as a unique physical and mental exercise for self-defense or offensive fighting.

If you've always thought of martial arts as just a lot of high kicks and punches, think again. Each move in martial arts is a precise movement. It can take a lifetime for people to learn the complex techniques of their particular martial art.

"The movies tend to show us a very limited side of martial arts," says Carol Gill.

"For example, we don't see the years it had taken people like the late Bruce Lee to learn what he did. And no matter what kind of martial art they're showing, the movies say it's karate!"

The martial arts vary, depending on their style. It's difficult to make many generalizations about this recreation as a whole.

"There are thousands of different martial arts and within each type there are numerous different sub-styles. Many are very similar and others are as different as boxing and wrestling," says martial artist Bruce Taber.

While there are many different forms of the martial arts, here is a list of the more common ones, which can be found in most communities:

  • Karate: Probably the best known martial art, karate is an ancient Japanese sport which emphasizes physical, mental and spiritual conditioning. There are a number of different karate sub-styles, some of which are traditional and others, which are sport and competition oriented. Techniques, used for both offence and defense, include punching, kicking and strong linear movements.
  • Tae kwon do: This is an ancient Korean method of self-defense which has recently become a competitive international sport. Tae kwon do emphasizes flexibility and kicking techniques, hand techniques and continuous action. It's similar to karate, but with an emphasis on kicking high.
  • Savat: This is a French style of kickboxing which is competitive and mainly involves kicking.
  • Kung fu: Also called Chinese boxing, this is one of the best known of the martial arts. Kung fu styles focus on an open hand and use kicks, strikes, throws, body turns, dodges, holds, crouches and starts, leaps and falls, handsprings and somersaults.
  • Jujitsu: The focus of this Japanese style is to control a physical attack. Its techniques are called gentle because they are mostly defensive. However, jujitsu uses holds, chokes, throws, trips, joint locks, kicks and strikes to vital body areas.
  • Judo: This is a wrestling form which, like jujitsu, tries to use the attacker's force to one's own advantage. This is a competitive sport which uses a lot of throwing and ground fighting.
  • Aikido: A non-competitive sport, aikido uses flowing, circular movements to bring opponents to the ground and immobilize them.
  • Tai chi chuan: Usually referred to as tai chi, this is an ancient Chinese exercise and fighting system which is usually employed for its health and spiritual benefits. It involves slow, graceful movements that are styled after its original arm and foot blows.
  • Sumo wrestling: This is a competitive sport where two large opponents wrestle each other in an attempt to force the opponent out of the ring, or to bring his body to the mat.
  • Kendo: Often called Japanese fencing, this takes its techniques from ancient Japanese sword fighting, although now kendo uses bamboo swords.

It's not surprising so many different styles of martial arts have developed -- they've had lots of time to do so.

Although there is no complete agreement about when the martial arts came into being, most records say they've been around since about the sixth century AD and were used in warfare in many parts of Asia.

Philosophy has been a big part of the development of martial arts. In fact, the martial arts were first introduced by India to China as a part of Zen Buddhism.

"You don't have to be a full-time philosopher, but you have to be willing to put your whole self into martial arts," says Gill. "Most of the styles stress using your mind and spirit as well as your body."

Experienced martial artists caution newcomers not to get too worried about "enlightenment." They say the biggest ingredient needed in a skilful martial artist is determination.

"Absolutely anyone can become a good martial artist. All it takes is a commitment to learn and to do your best," says Taber. "Hard work and patience will serve students of the martial arts well."

Experts say a committed beginner should probably train two days a week for 90 minutes. All this training doesn't come cheaply, however. Martial arts classes with a qualified instructor can cost anywhere from $35 to $80 per month. Uniforms vary in cost.

The type of equipment needed for each martial art style can vary. Obviously, styles like Japanese sword fighting are going to require some extra gear!

With the exception of tai chi, most martial arts styles are combative -- that means they're some form of fighting, and when people fight they may get hurt.

Although most classroom settings are pretty safe, experts say broken bones and sprained limbs do occasionally happen. It's all part of the sport.

"If somebody has been hurt, it usually means there's been a goof up or somebody's gotten carried away," says Gill. "It doesn't happen often, but there is always the possibility of injury with any sport."

Due to an increase in the popularity of this activity, many martial artists are able to make a living teaching martial arts classes in private schools or community centers, and some people even own their own martial arts schools.

Growing concern over personal safety has also increased the demand for people with martial arts skills to teach self-defense classes.

Getting Started

So you're interested in the martial arts? Experts say your first step is to decide which of the thousands of styles of martial arts you want to study.

One way to do this is by doing research online about the types of martial arts available in your area. There's not much point on setting your heart on training to become a Japanese sword fighter if nobody in town can show you how!

Once you've surveyed what's available in your area, experts say checking out the classes should be your next step.

"Go to some schools and ask if you can sit in on a few different classes. This should give you an idea of each of the styles and probably give you a feel for which one would best suit you," says Carol Gill.

Once you have settled on a particular martial art, choosing the right school is your next step. Experts say it's a good idea to do some research on schools before signing yourself up for training.

"Not every martial arts school is reputable and some may just not suit your style of learning, so you need to know what you're getting into first," says Gill.

Vermont martial arts enthusiast Jay Swan says there are a number of methods you can use to ensure you find the right school for you.

"It's a good idea to visit the school and watch how the instructor treats the students and how the students interact with the instructor. Ask yourself if this is an environment you can learn in," says Swan.

Swan also recommends talking to students of the school, asking around among your friends and sending away to martial arts organizations for information.


National Women's Martial Arts Federation

The United States Martial Arts Association


Major and Minor Martial Arts Styles
See an extensive list of all the major and unique martial arts styles

University of California Martial Arts Program
Its goal is to preserve the philosophy, techniques and tradition of martial arts

General Taekwondo Information
All the resources you need

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